David Nguyen

David Nguyen is a digital designer and filmmaker currently based in Melbourne.

The Strange Typography of Andrea Arnold's 'Wuthering Heights'

Update: an expanded version of this post, with new and more definitive information, has been published at Fonts In Use.

Andrea Arnold's transgressive adaptation of Emily Brontë's classic novel Wuthering Heights feels so raw it's almost stripped down to the bones.

Abandoning the high theatrics and sweeping soundtracks of previous interpretations, Arnold's version pares away narrative and dialogue to focus on atmosphere, allowing the story's volatile emotions to bubble beneath the surface and, eventually, explode.

Shot in murky tones by Robbie Ryan (who won the Golden Osella award for cinematography at the 2011 Venice Film Festival), Wuthering Heights recounts the story of the doomed relationship between childhood friends Cathy and Heathcliff against the backdrop of the punishing Yorkshire highlands, a place that feels so far removed from civilisaton to be virtually prehistoric: its mountainous landscapes are shrouded in mist; its plains soaked in rainwater; its inhabitants routinely covered in dirt and mud.

Arnold enriches the ambience by punctuating the film with lingering close-ups of nature including blades of grass and the wings of moths, even using a similar technique to photograph strands of Cathy's hair and Heathcliff's bleeding skin.

The overall effect is a film that feels so unvarnished, so primal, that the elements could break through the screen at any moment. Arnold's vision of nature feels so real and intense that it almost becomes a character in itself, as if the earth was channeling the desire, anger and despair of the major characters.

Yet for all of the considered stylistic choices, the film suffers from a flaw that, as a designer interested in typography, I find so bizarre it nearly proves fatal: the choice of font for the opening titles.

Not to be confused with the title card in the trailer (which is also on the poster), the title card for the movie itself looks something like this (at the time of writing the film is unavailable on DVD so I offer this approxmation):



The type, set in Bauhaus or one of its derivatives, features simple geometric forms to project what is an unmistakble retro-futuristic aura. What this has to do with Arnold's film is something of a mystery. As a design choice, the font feels so alien and incongruous to the tone of the movie that it spoils what is otherwise a superb artistic achievement — especially considering all the care and effort put into every other aspect of the production.

The UK poster for the movie suffers from a similar typographical problem:



In this case, the culprit is the ubiquitous Avant Garde, a font that, for the record, I love, but makes for a poor choice here. Ignoring the fact the poster is badly typeset (and overlooking the one line of text, "Based on the novel by Emily Bronte", inexplicably set in Arial), the clinical geometry of Avant Garde offers neither a reference to the film, an ironic comment about it or a neutral style to let the imagery speak for itself.

To that end, it remains unclear how the poster was intended to market the film: the type is set in a style suggesting the cover of a fashion magazine, while the key image (which uses a hue of brown that doesn't even feature in the film) has the kind of giant-head heroism that makes Wuthering Heights look more like a war movie or a Roman epic than the brooding melodrama it is.

But the most alarming thing about the poster is that, right in the middle, in giant uppercase letters, is a summary of the entire visual and metaphorical concept for the film:

Love is a force of nature.

As a brief for a design project, it can't be much clearer. How the result got so muddy, then, is anyone's guess

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