Wuthering Heights (2011)

Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 10/20/12 06:01:04

"Moors, Moors, Moors!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I haven’t read Emily Brontë’s 'Wuthering Heights,' and by most accounts, Andrea Arnold has proceeded to adapt only the book’s first half. Furthermore, she’s made a film version itself defined by two halves: the struggle between love and servitude, and the struggle with love as servitude.

Adopted into the Earnshaw clan under the guise of Christian kindness, Heathcliff (Solomon Glave as a boy, James Howson as a man) is taken to the eponymous Yorkshire farm and essentially treated like a servant by everyone but Cathy (Shannon Beer as a girl, Kaya Scodelario as a woman). She’s reason enough for Heathcliff to stay and endure, but once Cathy is married off to bourgeois neighbors, he flees, only to return years later with grand schemes in mind.

The most striking thing about Arnold’s approach is how decidedly earthy it is, very much keeping in line with her previously stripped-down character studies (Red Road, Fish Tank). Her decision to shoot the film in 1.33:1 Academy ratio makes the surroundings seem utilitarian above all else when compared to the traditionally sweeping gestures of most any other costume drama; it has a knack for making an early baptism come across with the intensity of an attempted drowning. There is no provided score beyond the howl of the wind and songs that are sung by the fireside, and if the whole of the film wasn’t shot by strictly natural lighting, then consider me convinced by the suitable starkness of the period.

Regardless, “natural” is the name of the game here. Arnold treats the young romance with an emphasis on primal concerns and taming beasts, with wrists clasped in romance and fists clenched in revenge. Love is muddy here; babies are both conceived and delivered outdoors, while the far more chaste affairs of Cathy and Heathcliff nonetheless leave them positively filthy. When the elements aren’t beating down on the homestead, the household beats on the young lovers instead, with Cathy’s brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) especially having it out for the outsider.

Animals abound on the estate, often showing up in pairs until one of them becomes caged, and what constitutes proper behavior between humans is rarely an issue worth addressing. “Why can’t you always be such a good lass, Cathy?,” her father asks. “Why can’t you always be such a good man?,” she inquires in return. He has no answer for her, and Heathcliff, as he does, lurks in the shadows, observing without obstructing a passing imitation of civility. The purity of Glave and Beer’s performances do wonders for the film’s first half, and each scene carries with it the essence of an entire chapter as these characters grow older and bolder in their emotions and actions.

Alas, once Heathcliff disappears into the night and returns in the light of day after an indeterminate passing of time, the initial pining fades, and Howson and Scodelario are soon left rigid by their respective resentments. Each character talks more than before while saying less, and each actor suitably underplays their one note but inevitably seems to be biding their time until a tragic romance becomes just that. The film’s deliberate, nigh hypnotic pace begins to take its toll, and an adaptation that seemed to be baring its soul at first simply becomes bare; if only Arnold and co-writer Olivia Hetreed had been as emotionally inventive here as proven before.

Like these characters, it’s easy to fall for the fog of love that lingers over the first hour, and in kind, it’s hard to not resent it when we as an audience must too be wed against our will to the consequences. Perhaps it’s simply best to give this version of 'Wuthering Heights' due credit for finding some new heights of its own at all.

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