The height of cruelty?

As mentioned previously, I have a problem with Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold’s stunningly elemental interpretation of Emily Brontë’s famous novel, and that’s with the implied animal cruelty in it. It’s set on the wild and windy moors, of course, and through Arnold’s radical and beautiful vision, we almost literally have our noses rubbed in the mud of this unforgiving rural landscape. By use of shallow focus and forensically sharp digital stock, she takes us right down into the undergrowth, there to see dewdrops glistening on a single strand of a spider’s web, or a thread of sheep’s wool snagged on a thistle. We can almost smell a horse’s breath, or feel the hairs on its head. It’s thrilling filmmaking, and a piece of cinema I would recommend you see, despite its narrative deficiencies. Unless you have a problem with the implied mistreatment of animals.

Using a largely unknown, and inexperienced, young cast, Arnold imbues what is for many a familiar love story with new life. (I have never read the book, but I’ve seen it on TV and heard the hit single.) She and her screenwriter Olivia Hetreed make Heathcliff black, rather than a gypsy, which brings a new power to his relationship with Cathy. As I note in my much shorter Radio Times review of the film, the detailed sound design, lack of score and action-chasing handheld camera bring the story alive. And Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave are striking as the young Cathy and Heathcliff. It’s such a modernist approach, almost as if this version is a guerilla documentary about a more conventional dramatisation of Wuthering Heights, captured on the hoof for the second disc of the DVD, your suspension of disbelief is occasionally shattered and, ironically, you start to think: it’s some actors on a hill. Indeed, it’s the reality of it that gives me my Big Problem.

The film carries a 15 certificate, which, according to the detailed BBFC report, is mainly to do with the strong language – which is only moderately fruity albeit at one point racist to modern ears – and what it refers to as “animal killings.” This is what the report goes on to state: “There are four scenes involving live animals, with a sheep’s throat being cut, a rabbit’s neck being broken and two dogs seen hanging from their collars from a fence and a branch, implying that they are left to die. Assurances have been provided by the production company explaining in detail how these scenes were filmed, including detail of special effects employed, so as not to harm any of the animals involved.”

I have to take that at face value. I don’t know how they used special effects to make it look like two dogs were being hung on a gatepost and a branch, but it looks just like they are actual dogs being actually hung, for a few seconds, by their collars, and are left, for a few seconds, to wriggle around uncomfortably. It’s easy enough to imagine animal trainers rushing in to unhook them after being on film for a few seconds, but that can’t be the case, surely? To be honest, as I never tire of saying, even implied violence towards animals onscreen bothers me. In a week when one prize fucking idiot was caught on camera actually swinging a cat around by its tail, and another was apparently stolen after being featured in an article in the London Evening Standard, I worry about people. And if animal cruelty is shown, even in an arthouse film, it might subconsciously go in.

I’m going to trust Andrea Arnold and the BBFC and accept that, somehow or other, no dogs were even made uncomfortable for a few seconds in the making of this film. But if you’re as soppy as I am, you might want to be ready to look away, or stay away.


7 thoughts on “The height of cruelty?

  1. People staying away could visit the actual countryside instead and study it in even more forensically sharp detail. The cruelty bothers me too but you can’t really hint at the possible effects of showing cruelty to animals – real or faked – without expecting that argument to be extended somewhat into other areas of human behaviour. Personally I’d rather see much less cruelty generally shown on my TV screen. Actually I do – by turning it off. But it bothers me that so much of it is there.

  2. Hi Andrew – I just saw Wuthering Heights this past Sunday (April 29, 2012), as part of the Independent Film Festival in Boston, Mass. (U.S.A) First, let me say that I’m a lover of movies/film – mostly all genres, and I can also tolerate a fair bit of on-screen violence when necessary to illustrate a point or broader theme in a movie, etc. However, I had to walk out of this movie twice – once when I saw the spaniel hanging and the final scene where the multiple dogs are hanging from branches on the tree. I can’t think of many other times when a film has so dramatically disturbed me. Clearly, this was intentional – to convey the harshness and desolation of the environment. And I grive props to Andrea for her cinematography and how she conveyed the brutality of nature. Unfortunately though, for me, the graphic scenes of animal abuse overpowed the positives I found in the film. Out of pure emotion, I found it difficult to see past them. Like you, I was especially disturbed since I simply can’t grasp how those scenes were filmed WITHOUT creating at least some distress in those dogs. And, I just can’t condone that for the sake of so-called “high art” – it’s not worth it. In closing, I would truly like to know how those scenes were shot – is there a way to find out more detail about these “special effects” that were employed?

    • Well, we’re in total agreement, Amy. I’m not sure how we can find out exactly how they did the supposed effects shots. We have to hope that an animal lover like you and me gets to interview Andrea Arnold at some point. We need reassurance. (Mind you, I am unhappy when I see a cat hissing onscreen, as there’s only one way of making a cat hiss.)

  3. I saw this film last night, and although I thought it was beautifully shot, with such attention to detail that provoked the imagination, but I must agree I wondered how those ‘hanging dogs’ scenes were filmed. I can only imagine that they really did happen, they looked too real to have been faked, and it did anger me and made me turn away in disbelief. They were obviously hanged for a few seconds, but those few seconds were too long for my liking.

    • I don’t believe special fx were used – so much easier to hang the poor dogs – absolutely disgraceful – no excuse – they’ll be telling us next the dogs were ACTING!!! Did the RSPCA not respond?

  4. I read Wuthering Heights and would never call it a love story. It is about cycles of violence and abuse, which includes violence against people and violence against animals. Puppies are hung in the novel. I think the book does a good job of linking violence against people and violence against animals. Today we know that children who commit violence against animals are at higher risk, unless treated, to commit violence against people.

  5. The book is an absolute masterpiece. But I can also say that Emily Bronte loved animals, particularly dogs. (She drew that dog portrait you see at the link, BTW.)

    It’s one thing to depict animal cruelty in a book as a way of underlining the depravity at Wuthering Heights. As Emily’s sister Anne once wrote, “When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?”

    But have no doubt that she would be furious if she knew that real dogs were hung for this film adaptation of her novel. I know that I am.

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