|Cathy and Heathcliff in Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights|
This is a 65-year-old film that adapts a 165-year-old book, so viewing it by political correctness is like kicking a cripple down a flight of stairs. Alas, to avoid so doing requires more restraint than I presently have at my disposal.
(I haven't read the book or seen the other films, so this is based on the Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre.)
For much of the film, brooding Rochester psychologically tortures steadfast Jane, tantalizing her affections without telling her she can ever be more than a servant to him, and repeatedly testing her loyalty. And I suppose it's true to life -- Rochester is rough with Jane without being an outright bastard -- I hear the ladies like that sort of thing. Note however that the modern-set parallel that comes to mind is downright sadomasochistic, Secretary.
The racial element comes in via Rochester's locked-away, long-gone-mad wife, Bertha. In a hushed, horrified tone, Rochester finally explains that when young, Bertha had no "chastity or temperance"; apparently, this means she went on quite the mattress tour of Spanishtown, Jamaica. To a mid-century, white audience, the implications of this summation would've been unmistakable: she was such a slut that she slept with darkies and went crazy. And the church said, "Amen."
(In the book, Bertha is a Creole, half-black and half-European. I don't think this is mentioned in the film, but even if it is my reading stands. Rochester's life has been tainted by sexual association with blacks.)
Again, we must remember that this is fiction from long ago. It makes the film difficult, however, because the plot hinges on the unseen wife, and the fact that her story is almost too terrible to speak aloud. Back then, marriage really was "til death," and considered sacred; Bertha's behavior was from Hell. Her very existence threatens to destroy Rochester.
The last line of the film reminds us again of race. The recovered Rochester is now happily married to Jane, and they have a newborn son, and Rochester can see "the boy had inherited his own eyes as they once were, large, brilliant and black" (Joan Fontaine reads this narration in a tone of swelling triumph). I believe the line signifies that the power of blackness is back where it belongs, deep within a white male, under his control.
|Jane Austen Society, Brooklyn, 2012|
The oddest thing about the film is an extra, "The Men Behind Jane Eyre," in which friends of the director, Robert Stevenson, compare him favorably as a director to Orson Welles, his male lead in this film. They base their argument on the fact that Stevenson's films, which include lots of Disney live-action like Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, have been seen by far more people than have seen those of Welles.
Well OK: we all have our favorites, directors we feel deserve more attention. Still, these testimonials are given with a remarkable mix of guilt, bitterness, and smugness, as if Stevenson had been burned-at-the-stake by some past generation of pretentious cineastes. I would link this doc with Puff Daddy's self-comparison to Picasso and Steven Spielberg's hamfisted runs at immortality (Falling Skies: most awkward Paley Center panel ever) as signs of the corporate takeover of planet Earth.