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‘Wuthering Heights’ a spare, intense, and raw adaptation of Bronte’s classic novel

Wuthering Heights

Directed by Andrea Arnold

Written by Andrea Arnold and Olivia Hetreed

United Kingdom, 2011

In bringing Wuthering Heights, perhaps the stormiest of the Victorian-era romances, to life on film once again, director and co-writer Andrea Arnold gives the story a fresh, arty, and bleak new coat of paint. The tale of Heathcliff and Catherine, star-crossed lovers on the English moors doomed to failure, has always been stark, a harsh depiction of life on the outskirts. But Arnold’s approach, best exemplified by the very deliberate in-your-face, hand-held cinematography, is a daring and impressive take, eschewing melodrama for the most part.

Adapting novels to the big screen is always tricky, and Arnold’s choice to present the struggles of its two leads internally at first seems like a sure sign of failure. However, the way she portrays Heathcliff and Catherine through her direction and the script (co-written by Olivia Hetreed) in such a spare, sparse yet affecting way is a breath of fresh air. The feelings that Heathcliff and Catherine (played as youngsters by Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, and as adults by James Howson and Kaya Scodelario) share are raw, stripped down, and pure in their intensity. Arnold conveys that passion most often through the images, not in dialogue.

The most striking aspect of Wuthering Heights is the full-frame cinematography from Robbie Ryan, who also shot Arnold’s last film, Fish Tank. That modern dissertation of alienation in youth, featuring a slightly-before-he-was-everywhere performance from Michael Fassbender, would seemingly share little in common with this period piece; however, Arnold, along with the actors, are able to mine a lot of pain and trauma from longing glances and nearly animalistic physical movement. Glave and Beer, especially, are quite strong as the younger Heathcliff and Catherine, getting across the sexual attraction the two feel for each other as it manifests into something more violent, more raw. When the characters are adults, Howson has far more to do as Heathcliff—Catherine becomes almost a ghost as she lives, present in his mind more than she is in real life—and conveys a nice balance of pent-up frustration and youthful longing.

As a director, Arnold seems to revel most of all in the power to relay information visually. Presenting a character’s thought process, how their memories and thoughts and ideas all jumble together in a sometimes inexplicable mélange, is always a challenge in a film. Thankfully, Arnold assumes her audience is smart enough to put together the pieces. Her take on this tortured romance is appropriately fractured, jumping back and forth between past and present, dreams and memories and reality. And as hackneyed as hand-held, cinema verite camerawork may be these days, Arnold uses it exceptionally. We are as trapped as Heathcliff is on the moors, rarely leaving him. We are having the same agonizing experience he’s having, watching a tragedy unfold, one which we are powerless to stop, one that has to happen.

Frankly, there’s only one misstep in Wuthering Heights, the closing song written and performed by Mumford and Sons. The UK folk-rock band is quite good, but their style doesn’t fully fit the mentality Arnold is going for. It’s not the worst possible way to end the movie, but the emotion that Heathcliff feels as the story reaches its natural conclusion is undercut a bit by the lilting, modern voices of Mumford and Sons. The song they wrote, “The Enemy,” isn’t bad; it just doesn’t mesh well. The rest of the movie is so surefooted if prickly that the song stands out like a sore thumb.

Wuthering Heights, like the Bronte classic, radiates with pain and lost love. The presentation of the story may be unexpected and forceful, but Andrea Arnold’s emphasis on the people, the closeness of the relationship that Heathcliff and Catherine have with each other makes the story take flight in a way that it hasn’t in previous adaptations. The Victorian era had many novels telling of romances that were doomed to fail. Emily Bronte’s vision is well captured through Andrea Arnold’s visual lens. It may push some people away, despite having a big, wounded heart, but that’s as it should be. The story of Heathcliff and Catherine needs to be obsessive, disastrous, and full of anguish; this new film is bursting at the seams with all of those qualities.

— Josh Spiegel