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To her surprise, director Andrea Arnold tackles ‘Wuthering Heights’

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:19AM

British director Andrea Arnold’s films are placed firmly and realistically in the here and now. Her debut, the revenge drama “Red Road,” is a gripping tale set in a notorious Glasgow tenement. It was followed by “Fish Tank,” the story of a troubled teenager and her doomed relationship with her mother’s charismatic lover. Her Oscar-winning short film, “Wasp,” is set in the challenging world of a young single mother who is raising her four young children with little help.

These unflinching films propelled Arnold into an exalted realm, along with fellow U.K. directors Steve McQueen (“Shame”) and Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”).

That said, the project she chose for her next act is bound to surprise. Arnold admits it even surprised her when she said yes to “Wuthering Heights” (opening Friday in Chicago).

“I had friends reminding me that I swore never to do an adaptation or a period film,” Arnold recalls with a laugh. “And then I go and pick one of the most famous books of all times. So it was a bit of a surprise all around.”

Arnold, 51, loved the book as a teenager: “It always stuck with me. I’ve always been drawn to the complexity and dark heart of the story.”

So when she heard a new film version was heading into production, she felt a twinge of jealousy. But as luck would have it, the film’s original director left the project, and out of the blue, Arnold was asked to take over. The project already had momentum, and she had only 18 months to write a script, find actors and complete filming.

But the tight schedule didn’t bother her: “Sometimes it’s good to move fast, because you have to use your instincts. I think some of the best decisions are made that way. When you have too much time to think about things, you can get too safe, and that can lead to the wrong thing.”

Emily Bronte’s novel, published in 1847, is a complicated, intriguing story that has captured the imaginations of readers through generations as they follow the journey of a poor boy of unknown origins. He is rescued from poverty by the Earnshaw family and then develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. Played out over the beautiful and brutal Yorkshire moors, their cruel and tender obsession eventually will destroy them both.

“Wuthering Heights” has to be one of the most frequently filmed novels. More than a dozen film and television adaptations are listed on the Internet Movie Database with Heathcliff played by Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton and Ralph Fiennes, and Cathy portrayed by Merle Oberon, Claire Bloom and Juliette Binoche. They are big footsteps for Arnold’s actors to walk in. Even more remarkable, all but five of her cast had never acted before.

To cast most of the film’s roles, Arnold scoured the Yorkshire countryside for actors who would bring a “rawness and honesty” to the screen. She found her young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) in a local school and then the older Heathcliff (James Howson) after he saw a poster for an open call while he was at an unemployment office.

Both actors also are black. It’s a first for the role, but Arnold doesn’t see it as controversial. “In the book, Heathcliff is very different,” Arnold explains. “And the description of him is that he’s clearly not white. I think it was a very clear difference, and I felt it was important to honor Emily’s vision.”

The true test of the cast and crew’s stamina came when Arnold decided to shoot the entire film on the moors, a move that brings a visceral immediacy to the story. Unlike any other adaptation of Bronte’s novel, Arnold makes the mud, wind and rain elemental to the storytelling.

“I’m very interested in nature and the way it connects with us, and also the way that it’s very selfish and brutal as well,” Arnold says. “So I knew it was going to be a difficult shoot, but it was so much more difficult than anyone imagined.”

It’s obvious through her films that Arnold is drawn to the darker side of life. “I don’t deliberately seek it,” she explains. “It just seems to be what comes out.”

She’s currently writing her next project, which she describes as “something intimate and personal.” Arnold seems a bit startled when asked if she ever sees herself writing and directing a romantic comedy.

“I doubt it, but you never know,” she says with a laugh. “I said I would never make a period drama or an adaptation, and here I am.”

Mary Houlihan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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