September 6, 2011 / 4:24 PM / 7 years ago

Heathcliff is black in UK remake of Bronte's novel

VENICE (Reuters) - “Wuthering Heights” male protagonist Heathcliff is portrayed by a black actor for the first time in Andrea Arnold’s remake of one of English literature’s best-known classics, screening in competition at the Venice film festival.

The choice will probably not surprise fans of Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, where the homeless boy found by a Yorkshire farmer who then falls desperately in love with his daughter Cathy is described as a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect” — although his ethnicity is still the subject of debate.

Arnold stumbled by chance on two unknowns, Solomon Glave and James Howson, and cast them as the younger and older Heathcliff for her two-hour long rendering of the book.

Howson, who follows in the steps of Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton and Ralph Fiennes, saw an advertisement for the audition in a shop window in Leeds. “I thought you’ve got the face of an actor, phone the number, you’ve got nothing to lose,” he told reporters after a press screening on Tuesday.

Overcome with emotion, Glave broke down in tears at the news conference.

Oscar-winning British director Arnold, best known for her 2009 film “Fish Tank,” said it was always going to be difficult to bring to the screen one of the most read, analyzed and influential works of literature.

Unlike previous adaptations, her film gives a rawer, more gothic reading of the novel, which has become a symbol of undying love for generations of readers and inspired dramas, poems, ballets, operas and even songs. She also wanted to have actors the same age as the roles they are playing.

“To take that book and put it into a film is an impossible task and not one that anyone can do well I don’t think,” Arnold said.

“I tried to honor her essence, because I think it is actually quite a dark and profound book,” she said, adding that she regretted having to cut off the second half of the novel.

“I also get very involved with detail as well so I just know that there is no way that I can contain all that book in a film, it would be seven hours long or something and we’d all be tearing our hair out.”

She said the novel had deeply affected her when she first read it in her 20s, but she had never thought she would do a period film until producers approached her with the project.

The autumn shooting with wild weather and flooding in the remote moors of North Yorkshire was a “difficult journey in every way, it was like there was a curse.”

“But I quite enjoyed the fact that there was no electricity and it was quiet, and we could play the sound in an interesting way and the nature was really important, and people’s interactions, you know they’re living in small groups of people and not in a city. All these things attracted me.”

The older Cathy is played by Kaya Scodelario, who has acted in the Channel 4 TV series “Skins” and said she was reluctant to join the cast until she met Arnold.

“I never wanted to do period, I was terrified of period because I am not trained, I haven’t been to drama school, my mum is Brazilian. I never felt I’d fit in for a period drama at all,” Scodelario said.

“She completely relaxed me instantly, she said I don’t like period either, it’s not going to be like that, it’s not going to be completely stiff and strange, it’s going to be different. And that really excited me.”

Reporting By Silvia Aloisi, editing by Paul Casciato

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