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Wuthering Heights

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Andrea Arnold
Length 129 mins
Certificate 15 / TBA
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Trailer.

Many of us will first have experienced Wuthering Heights at school. If this is so then the material is set at a dangerous disadvantage. Rather than a novel of unexplainable and uncontainable weirdness and horror, it becomes a topic for an essay question that has to be done by next Thursday. There is no better way of ridding an artistic work of passion than this. Discuss. And yet Wuthering Heights is resilient. It has survived the curriculum; it has survived a Kate Bush song and a Cliff Richard/Tim Rice musical. But what has survived into 2011 with Andrea Arnold’s new film adaptation?

There is a rainstorm almost as black as night itself. Emerging from the wet and returning home is Mr. Earnshaw, head of the family and owner of the farm. He has brought with him Heathcliff, a small black lad. The silent Heathcliff, played by newcomer Solomon Glave, is befriended by Earnshaw’s daughter, Cathy (Shannon Beer, also making her screen debut.) Their friendship and later love grows even as Heathcliff proves himself a handful - at times spiteful, unwilling or unable to fit in. The situation worsens with the death of his protector Mr. Earnshaw, and Heathcliff finds himself at the tender mercies of eldest son and new master, Hindley, and the old servant, Joseph (Steve Evets from Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric [2009]). With Cathy’s estrangement from Heathcliff as a consequence of her new interest in local rich boy, Edgar Linton, life finally becomes intolerable, and he flees. Years pass, Cathy marries Edgar, and Hindley runs the farm. But then Heathcliff returns a wealthy man, bent on something like revenge.

The film is excellent when it comes to its sense of place. The location almost becomes a character and its weather more than simply weather. The constantly blowing wind, the wildlife - insects, rabbits, dogs, butterflies - are filmed with absorbed attention. Andrea Arnold brought out the poetry of the housing estate in her earlier award-winning films Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009) and here she brings this alertness to the Yorkshire countryside and isolated farm of the title. Her sensitivity to place, and ability to convey it, is truly extraordinary. Her camera picks out the textures of wood grain, of rock, the sharpness of the long grass, the muddiness of a peat bog.

However, there is a tension in Arnold’s cinema between her longing for unexpected beauty and her commitment to some form of social realism. The handheld camera, the nods to Ken Loach, the updating of the idiom, the shedding of period drama clichés and the casting of non-professional actors in major roles - all seem to seek a realism which the overly-directed camera work and sometimes precious attention to the intricate loveliness of moths undermines. The casting is perhaps the biggest blunder. Using non-professionals has always been hit-and-miss, and here the first generation of performers embody both: Solomon Glave is a glum lumpy presence; Shannon Beer is better, fresh and alive. Equally, as the older (but, crucially for credibility, not that much older) Heathcliff, James Howson doesn’t seem so much troubled as straightforwardly confused. Kaya Scodelario as the elder Cathy is much better - Arnold having in this case gone for a professional actress, known for her role in the popular TV series Skins.

If it is about anything, Wuthering Heights is about the amoral destructive violence of passion. But here there is little or no passion. There is intellectual engagement with the source material. There is a post-colonial reading of the origins of the male protagonist. There is an interesting and original view of the relationship between the characters and their environment. In other words, Andrea Arnold’s film is not so much an adaptation of Wuthering Heights as it is a brilliant school essay: admirable, interesting and largely valid, but cold as rainwater and as dull as the night.

This review was published on November 24, 2011.

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