One of the clearer processes of action and reaction in cultural history was that Romanticism reacted against Neo-Classicism, that Naturalism reacted in turn against Romanticism, and that, in a somewhat minor aftershock, Aestheticism recoiled from Naturalism. Amongst the many remarkable things about the new film of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is that it brings the reaction against Romanticism into the movement itself, presenting us with a Naturalism so vivid that it is impossible to flirt with the purely Aesthetic. It strips the tale of its Romantic qualities while remaining true to the novel’s essence, which is the relation of human beings to time, place, culture, and their own animal natures.
In other words: to a Naturalistic view of human behavior and the function of art in exposing it. Gone are the Gothic trappings of the supernatural, whether one interprets them theologically, psychologically, or as literal noumena; thrown to the whipping winds and the bitter frosts of the Yorkshire landscape is any sense of the moral or the heroic; the hard lands of the heath arouse nary a sublime thought nor a romantic notion; they are merely inhospitable, beautiful to see in their way but not at all suggestive of God or death or eternal love; the desire of Wuthering Heights in this version is of simple unadulterated instinct, the will to possess and to hold.
Race, an absent theme in the original, is present here, and much touted in the film’s publicity, but less important than one would expect, one factor among many. Heathcliff, a transplanted West Indian, is reduced by the materiality of his circumstances to the meanest calculations of the human condition, a raw algebra of survival and procreative impulse; his cultural background is there to be considered but has astoundingly little to do with it. Andrea Arnold’s film is a very great achievement that makes of the viewer an active observer of human behavior both cruel and kind, but without judgment, attuned more to causality than to morals.
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