Wuthering Heights Review
The director of grim social realist dramas like Red Road and Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold would surely not be the first person you would think of as being best suited to making yet another British period adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic of romantic literature. It’s not surprising then that this new version of Wuthering Heights not only bears little resemblance to the familiar style that we are used to seeing in period dramas and but it also completely avoids the conventional narrative and dialogue driven approach of regular depictions of the original novel. What is surprising however is that, through soaking up the elemental nature of the actual Yorkshire locations, Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights is in many ways not only more faithful to the characters of Heathcliff and Cathy than any previous adaptation, but it may even give Emily Brontë’s original novel a run for her money. That’s a very big claim to make for Arnold’s film, but if it’s not a masterpiece, it’s not far off it. Personally, I’d be inclined to stick with masterpiece.
The story remains very firmly based on the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff (the second generation part of the novel omitted like most adaptations), and it remains faithful to the nature of that relationship and to the spirit of the family bonds and alliances that end up causing so much suffering and pain between them, but otherwise the director makes use of whatever means she feels is appropriate for bringing these aspects out and giving them sufficient weight, impact and realism. If that means casting a young black actor to play Heathcliff, the young gypsy child who is found on the streets of Liverpool and taken into the Earnshaw household by its master, and if it helps reinforce the prejudice against the orphan that leads to his near servitude and status as an outsider, then Arnold isn’t afraid to deviate considerably from type. If it also means devoting a good half of the running time on the childhood of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in order to attempt to explore more deeply and authentically the founding of the relationship between them that is to have such devastating consequences later on, and choosing to view it moreover principally from Heathcliff’s perspective, then the director feels justified in following that path. And her choices, it seems, are proved right.
Even those major structural changes and choices of emphasis only go a small way however towards assessing the impact the directorial decisions have on the overall tone of the work. Again, with the emphasis being on minimalism, none of those decisions are ones that one would immediately think of being appropriate for Wuthering Heights. For a start, the film is starkly filmed in academy ratio of 1:33:1 or 4x3, and there are not many modern films, let alone mainstream ones, that would opt for such an aspect ratio on a film like this, particularly one where the landscape features so prominently. Nonetheless, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is not only incredibly striking and remarkably beautiful, superbly lit with dark late autumnal colouration, but it fully captures a sense of the characters within this world, with their nature and personality reflected in it. There are single frames that, taken alone, are painterly and evocative (one image of the older Heathcliff lying on his back on a mist covered hill comes to mind that expresses everything about his sense of abandonment to the cruel harsh beauty of the world), but these images are not taken in isolation or indeed in stillness. Whether picking out the fluttering of moths, the flight of hawks, or the progress of the human relationships within this harsh, forbidding landscape of mud, mists, snows and blustery winds, the film is alive with movement, seeking to find expression in the wholeness and interconnectedness of life and nature, the film every inch as ambitious in scope as Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life seen earlier this year, yet without ever descending into mysticism, idealisation or indeed airbrushed prettification of the imagery.
It is inevitably a much harsher, brutal vision of the world and human nature that is depicted in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. The young Cathy and Heathcliff seek out what little beauty and wonder is open to them right there in the very mud of the landscape, following their own inner natures, and it does come across as something wonderful and beautiful. It’s when both of them start to deny their own nature, whether through choice, through circumstance, through misunderstanding of their own natures or that of others, that everything becomes twisted and corrupted. The force of nature is expressed in the world and in the movement, but it’s also evident in how the characters relate to one another. Little of the eloquence of expression comes across from the novel – the film is very minimal on spoken dialogue, and there is no music soundtrack – yet everything that needs to be expressed is there in the frame, in the sounds of nature and in the reactions on the faces of the young cast of unknowns. When strong words are spoken, they come with a violence and a use of language that wouldn’t have been available to Emily Brontë, yet it achieves a deeper sense of realism without ever feeling forced or out of place.
The use of young inexperienced actors is a good choice in this regard then and is remarkably effective for achieving what the director wants to say about how life shapes these complex characters, particularly in the untamed younger versions of Cathy and Heathcliff (Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave). The lack of dialogue and direct interaction doesn’t work quite so well when we come to their older counterparts (Kaya Scodelario and James Howson), and it becomes a little more difficult to sympathise with or even fully comprehend the Cathy who is married to Edgar (Oliver Milburn) or the Heathcliff who uses and abuses Isabella (Nichola Burley), but by this stage the characters are indeed cut-off from their true inner natures and find it impossible to reconnect without causing each other and themselves unbearable pain. Aware of this perhaps, the director is able to use cut-aways and flashbacks, not in a conventional expositional way, but as an impressionistic way of reminding the viewer of how their early lives have shaped what they have become.
There was always an impressionistic side to Andrea Arnold’s work that gave a sharper edge to the harsh, minimalist social realism of her films, but adapting Wuthering Heights allows her considerably more scope to show the true extent of her talent as a film director. That might sound like it is more to Arnold’s advantage than to Brontë’s, but while fans of the original work might be a little disconcerted at the unconventional methods used and the almost complete lack of traditional narrative structure, this latest version of Wuthering Heights gets to the heart of the work in a much more visceral way than any previous adaptation. And not only that, but it even draws out qualities that deepen the original novel and force one to look at a classic work in an entirely new light. So yes, surely, a masterpiece.