British director Andrea Arnold describes her experience creating a new film version of Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s only novel and 250-year-old literary phenomenon, as "a very difficult journey" but one which she couldn’t abandon.
The result, in which the character of Heathcliff is portrayed by a black actor for the first time on the big screen, is a period piece that is a marked change of style for Arnold, who is better known for more contemporary stories.
"I just had some sort of obsession with it," Arnold told reporters ahead of the film’s world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday.
Fans of Cathy and Heathcliff will find a story in which life in general is difficult and where a love story is more suggested than embraced.
As the film opens, Heathcliff (played by newcomer Solomon Glave) is a young boy without a home, taken in by Cathy’s family. Cruelty reigns, and young Cathy prefers running up the moors with Heathcliff than staying inside, which often leads to beatings for Heathcliff.
Cathy later tends to his wounds. Many scenes see the young boy staring in windows, yet remaining an outsider.
Nature is also an important character in the story and Arnold intertwines the characters with their natural surroundings.
"I felt (nature) is part of the fabric and I always thought it should be part of the fabric of the film, living in such a wild area, nature would be a big part of life," said Arnold, who twice won the Cannes film festival jury prize for more modern stories, "Fish Tank" in 2009 and "Red Road" in 2006, and an Oscar for best action short in 2005 for "Wasp."
Throughout the film, Heathcliff is often the subject of cruel beatings by Cathy’s brother, Hindley (Lee Shaw).
It’s an era where hunting and killing livestock are the main food sources, and even the love between the children has a cruel tone: the child Heathcliff and Cathy (Shannon Beer), often wrestle or hit each other, in lieu of tenderness.
In the case of both the younger and older versions of the protagonists, the director selected a cast that included unknown actors to portray the all-encompassing, tragic love story.
The story pivots when still children, Heathcliff overhears Cathy say she will marry her neighbor, the rich Edgar Linton. Heathcliff disappears. Years later, he returns well-dressed and with money to claim her back. Cathy (played in the older version by Kaya Scodelario) is expecting a child, but she still loves Heathcliff (James Howson).
"I think the book is profound and strange and dark," says Arnold. But she also says, "When I start something I don’t have grand intentions. Everyone says, ‘Oh, what are your themes.’ I said, this is an interesting journey and I don’t know where it’s going to go. I am just going to leap in, and I did."
Arnold is one of four female directors to compete in this year’s Venice Film Festival, which ends Sept. 10 with the awarding of the festivals coveted Golden Lion.