Following the deaths of her sisters Emily and Anne, Charlotte Brontë dutifully penned her now famous preface, “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell,” published in an 1850 reprint of Wuthering Heights. In it, she disclosed the mysterious identity of the writers Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell: pseudonyms the sisters, awake to the reality “that author-esses are liable to be looked on with prejudice,” had chosen. Moreover, her note was a tribute to Emily. Her sole novel suggested a deep and jangling, wanton melancholy. By no means was it “feminine.” As Charlotte remarks about her younger sister, “An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world.” Perhaps, no matter how garbled, the many adaptations (and interpretations) of Wuthering Heights—for film, television, radio, the ballet, the opera—are a testament to Emily’s proximity to artists’ tempestuous pathos.
Andrea Arnold, the British director who won an Academy Award for her 2005 short, Wasp, might at first glance seem like an unlikely purveyor of a Wuthering adaptation. Her two features are bleak contemporary portraits of women on the verge—disquiet brought on by obsessive retribution in Red Road and choleric teenage torment in Fish Tank. Both, however, wield a tenderness that is at its core human. In this way, Arnold’s take on Brontë’s sole novel is imaginatively faithful.
ARNOLD: Well, you know, weirdly I think he’s not such a male lead. I think he’s quite androgynous. I think he’s really Emily. I’ve realized that lots of men don’t like the book, and I keep thinking why they don’t they like the book. I think it’s a really feminine book—that it’s quite a feminist book. Heathcliff is really quite female. So I feel like I did do the woman’s point of view in a roundabout way. He is Emily. He’s a part of Emily. He is the darker, wilder side of Emily. Perhaps, on some level, a true side of herself that she hid. We all have sides that we don’t reveal to the world. And with Emily, perhaps he is that side of her that was inhibited from being female at that time. You had to be quiet. You were not allowed to express. He was a part of her anger. So perhaps, without even noticing it, it wasn’t entirely a departure for me.