Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights is a colossal mish-mash of sub-genres narrative perspectives, and literary tones all interweaving to form a story that has been reproduced countless times over. It appeases the romantic, the historian, the horror enthusiast, the feminist, the political activist, and those who enjoy a juicy read with heightened soap operatics. Perhaps Bronte’s total commitment to covering every angle of the human need for escapism drained every fiber of her being, and could very well be the reason why Wuthering Heights remains her sole novel. I can only imagine that those who have adapted the book into a television miniseries or film haven’t always been met with success or praise. Bronte’s novel is simply too multilayered and tonally dense to be compressed into such a limited time frame and still stay true to her authorship’s vision. It takes a very special auteur to pick apart pieces of Bronte’s definitive novel, and churn it into something that is stylistically very much their own without diminishing the story or the characters that millions of readers hold sacred. Andrea Arnold has accomplished this with a visual imprint unlike any I have ever seen in a film adaptation, evolving her own directorial skills in the process.
Much like her equally effective Fish Tank, Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights is very much an individual character study. Those familiar with Bronte’s Wuthering Heights know that Heathcliff, Nelly, Catherine and Lockwood can all arguably be referred to as equal leads in the passionate drama. Yes, Catherine and Heathcliff’s torrential love affair is at the center of the story, but our looking glass into their tale is through the oration of Nelly, with the attentive Lockwood standing in for the audience. Arnold — bless her consistency as an auteur — stays true to her narrative ideology by only focusing on one character’s perspective: the enigmatic and cruel Heathcliff. Arnold could have gone the predictable route and crafted a feminist exploration through the lens of either Nelly the maid or Catherine Earnshaw, and I’m sure no one would have made a fuss. However, proving that she’s neither definable nor stereotypical (it’s unfortunate in Hollywood that most female directors are ignorantly assumed to be entirely fixated on their own gender and “intrinsic passions”), she instead dives deeper into Heathcliff’s position as a minority figure. Through Arnold and Olivia Hetreed’s screenplay, it becomes self-evident why Heathcliff becomes such a monstrous figure in his adult years, something that wasn’t as tangibly understood in even Bronte’s novel. Neither Arnold nor Hetreed go out of their way to overtly defend the actions made by Heathcliff (he’s got a nasty violent streak, especially towards the farm animals who become the unfortunate victims of his unbridled anger), but they both position him in such a way that if he’s not completely sympathetic, you’re at least given the option of either accepting him or not without feeling morally vexed.
As opposed to Bronte’s aggrieved and demonic description of her novel’s milieu, Arnold’s version of “Wuthering Heights” is a lot more appreciative of the landscape’s vertical limits and grandiosity. Arnold perfectly demonstrates the visceral ambiguity of the Earnshaw’s hilltop home by equally evincing its beauty and harshness with the aid of Robbie Ryan’s DP prowess. Ryan’s cinematography – which, aside from The Master and The Turin Horse, is the most gorgeous camera work of 2012 – is primarily composed of hand-held shots that make great use of deep and soft focus. The shaky camera places you right into the chaotic beauty of the Heights, with gusty winds that cause you to feel a great sense of adventure despite the occasional vertigo. Moreover, Ryan’s use of deep focus stresses the natural environment in its most personal and intimate, its significance and beauty completely understood despite the tumultuous living conditions. Bugs and insects have never seemed more alive and visually appealing than they do in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. Ryan’s camerawork even beautifies the simplicity of something as wondrous as hair moving in the wind. That seems very cliché on paper, but seeing Cathy’s hair up-close from Heathcliff’s point-of-view — so angelic and able to free him of all his worries by sight alone — makes their romantic/incestuous connection all the more believable.
From a narrative standpoint, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights does away with Lockwood’s story entirely, and really begins and ends with the tale with Heathcliff, as it should be since he’s the subject of focus for Arnold. The origins of Heathcliff and the Earnshaws are very much the same as in Bronte’s novel: a marginally profitable landowner brings home an orphan boy following his visit of one of England’s countryside towns. His children first despise the orphan, jealous of the attention their kind father gives to the orphan boy, who they name Heathcliff. However, the daughter, Catherine, slowly comes around and loves Heathcliff like a brother or best friend. The other son, Hindley, despises Heathcliff to no end, and beats or chastises him whenever he gets the opportunity. After Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley forces Heathcliff into laboring away day and night for their estate in Wuthering Heights, and banishes him from the house and into the cold, adjacent farmhouse. The only difference is that instead of Heathcliff being a gypsy orphan — like he’s mentioned as in Bronte’s novel — he’s actually African in Andrea’s version. The decision to make Heathcliff an African character is still very much in line with his original minority status, but Andrea’s added race factor now provides the story with a more controversial edge given the time period. The new casting decision also appeases contemporaries like me who enjoy a modern reworking of stories we’ve heard told the same way over and over again, without any kind of social context or relevant commentary.
Finally, I have to end this review by praising the acting in this film, especially the child actors Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, who play the respective roles of Young Heathcliff and Young Catherine. Shannon Beer coats the often-unkind and sinister Catherine Earnshaw with a youthful spirit that makes her instantly more likable than Bronte’s creation. You understand her inner conflict more – she’s trying to appease her duty as a proper lady, but doesn’t wish to hide from her growing feelings for Heathcliff. Shannon Beer reminds me of a young Jennifer Lawrence with her girl-next-door looks, unafraid to get muddy and dirty in order to really sell the heck out of the inhabited character. As for Solomon Glave, he delivers the strongest young actor performance of 2012 so far. If he’s not a nominee on the Critic’s Choice “Best Young Actor/Actress in a Motion Picture” ballot, it will be a true travesty. Andrea Arnold directs her actors to express their character’s inner emotions through gazes and bodily reactions. Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which is a relief considering how “talky” Bronte’s literary classic can be. The character’s become fully realized by the actor’s physicality and contact with one another. Arnold intentionally has her film screened in television-sized ratio (the black boxes are on the sides instead of top and bottom, like in widescreen format) in order to ensure that the audience is never distracted by anything except the main protagonist in center frame. Fans of Arnold’s Fish Tank will recognize this artistic choice if they watch her 2009 film on Netflix, with the frame so dedicated at all-times to Katie Jarvis’ Mia Williams. What that stylistic decision does is force you to ultimately feel and be that character, since we’re basically attached to them throughout the film’s duration. That is a lot of pressure for an actor, and Solomon Glave does an impeccable job at really establishing Heathcliff’s justifiable cruelty from the get-go. In my opinion, Arnold’s hidden message in Wuthering Heights is that monstrosity breeds monsters. Nature is there to innocently preserve, but nurture, or lack thereof, is what taints an individual and sends them on a ruinous path of total destruction. Without spoiling the ending, Arnold concludes her adaptation of Bronte’s novel on a very intriguing note, and I walked away from my screening very satisfied with the way Wuthering Heights wrapped itself up.
My only gripes with Wuthering Heights are that the actors who take over the adult roles of Heathcliff and Catherine aren’t as enthralling or interesting to watch. This is no slight on the adult actors themselves (James Howson and Kaya Scodelario), but the children — who actually receive more screen-time than their adult counterparts — sink into their characters so much more, and therefore clinch our sympathies without hesitation. Lee Shaw who plays Hindley is nothing more than a one-dimensional brute in Arnold’s version, but if that underdeveloped character is the sacrifice made in order for the film to deeply enrich Bronte’s infamous Heathcliff, I’ll gladly take it.
Between the awe-inspiring cinematography, Andrea Arnold’s authorial consistency as a filmmaker following her two feature films, and the precision of the screenplay to only use the most appropriate parts of Bronte’s novel to create this masterful revision makes Wuthering Heights not just the best classic film adaptation since Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, but also one of the best films of 2012 thus far. If Andrea Arnold keeps accelerating at the pace she’s going, she’ll one day stand toe-to-toe with great visual auteurs like Bela Tarr and Terence Malick.
Andrea Arnold’s visually arresting Wuthering Heights opens October 5th in New York City, followed by the Los Angeles release on October 12th at the NuArt Theatre. Expect a national rollout shortly thereafter. If this film receives any awards attention from The Academy, it will be definitely be for Mumford & Son’s original song “The Enemy,” which happens to be the best and most fitting movie song of 2012 I’ve heard so far. If The Academy is looking to spread some indie love, the cinematography more than deserves a nomination (like I said; only Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is as strong in this field from what I’ve seen this year). I deeply encourage anyone who is able to see this film to go and do so. Film adaptations with such artistic freedom rarely get made, so I implore you to check out Andrea Arnold’s newest masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, when it comes to a theater near you.
Here’s the video of Mumford & Son’s “The Enemy”:
Tags: Andrea Arnold, British films, Catherine Earnshaw, Emily Brontë, film adapations, Heathcliff, Katie Jarvis, Kaya Scodelario, Lee Shaw, Lockwood, Oscilloscope Laboratories, Robbie Ryan, Wuthering Heights, Wuthering Heights Review