REVIEW: “Wuthering Heights” (***1/2)

Posted by · 5:41 am · September 7th, 2011

Venice Film Festival

British filmmaker Andrea Arnold would have been 16 years old when Kate Bush topped the UK pop charts with “Wuthering Heights,” a swirling art-rock ballad that stripped the Emily Brontë novel for which it is named down to a few key lines and narrative details, but evoked its grand-scale tragic romance in more intuitive terms. In its wake, a new generation of schoolgirls clutched Brontë’s words tightly to their chests.

We can only speculate how Arnold came to the novel, but her bold, forbidding and impressively reconceptualized “Wuthering Heights” appears to take the Kate Bush course of adaptation: gutted of most of its words, with some choice ones added (I haven’t read it in some time, but I’m pretty sure Brontë didn’t write the line, “Fuck you all, cunts”), the novel serves as a theoretical starting point for an artwork that redraws the story with the most immediate sensory tools of its medium. This is a “Wuthering Heights” of weather and flesh and grass and locked eyes, one that has the simple common sense and staggering cinematic wherewithal to know that great adaptations don’t beat great writers at their own game; they play a new game entirely.

Whether Arnold, heretofore a ferocious stylist of urban realism on the record as saying this is the only novel she’d ever consider adapting, has won here will depend on your taste for austere cinema of the physical; since yesterday’s premiere, that laziest and least evocative of jabs, “pretentious,” has been heard a fair bit on the Lido in response to the film, when it actually couldn’t be more brazenly self-possessed. Most should agree, however, that a project that initially threatened its director’s defection to middlebrow prestige after the spiky wonders of 2009’s “Fish Tank” has turned out to be her most extreme auteurist work yet.

There’s an elemental construction and discomfiting, hand-in-face tightness at play in Arnold and her ingenious DP Robbie Ryan’s image system that recalls nothing so much as the dusky fevers of French experimentalist Philippe Grandrieux, its claustrophobia amplified by their decision, once more, to shoot in the boxy Academy ratio — though the clean, constant, near-tangible presence of a slicing Yorkshire wind at least provides some breathing room. Either way, the four-letter-strewn final product makes the fresh period innovations of Cary Fukunaga’s  recent, lovely adaptation of Brontë soeur‘s “Jane Eyre” look as romantically plush as Douglas Sirk by comparison.

Would that more filmmakers this gifted dared to handle sanctified source material this roughly. For amid its severe stylization, anachronistic dialogue (the most striking of which, even more than sundry “fucks” and “niggers,” is the preponderance of the humble “okay”) and questionable presence of Mumford & Sons on the soundtrack (I was stumping for Andrew Bird myself), Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” reveals a truth about the novel that few previous adaptations, including William Wyler’s stormily swoony 1939 classic, have done: specifically, that it’s not abundantly romantic at all. Chances are you know the tale of Catherine Earnshaw’s consuming, class-obstructed affair with the near-feral Heathcliff, her adopted gypsy brother, even if you’ve never read or seen it — but it takes an acquaintance with the source to see what a thistly, unkind story of cruel pride, denial and, yes, damaging passion it is.

Like most previous screen versions, Arnold and co-writer Olivia Hetreed (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”) have taken on only the irresistibly full arc of the novel’s first half, but have zeroed in more emphatically on the class tensions and familial cracks that both enable and cripple Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship. Arnold’s simplest and most successful amendment is the introduction of a black Heathcliff (played at different ages by Solomon Glave and James Howson), a stroke that places the social landscape of Brontë’s story in starker relief, and adds an extra layer of rancour to the abuse the character endures at the hands of Catherine’s seethingly inarticulate brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

If the new film occasionally wants for depth of feeling, the fault may not lie with the aggressively decluttered adaptation but with the alternately affecting and affected young actors that populate it. Three of the four actors playing the central couple are screen  novices, and while Arnold’s trust in inexperience paid off handsomely in “Fish Tank,” the results here are spottier: there’s a naïve emotional sincerity to the performances in early beats, but as the tragedy escalates, only the more practiced Kaya Scodelario (a veteran of TV’s “Skins”) really hits her marks as the older, pleasingly chilly Cathy. The ensemble might be flattered by a more assertive edit, as indeed could the film as a whole: certain turns of mood and character (notably the aforementioned hostility between Heathcliff and Hindley) feel over-inscribed across multiple scenes.

At the risk of seeming an over-apologist, however, lapses in performance and pacing can’t help but feel like secondary concerns in the face of visual storytelling so overwhelmingly tactile. Rather than a jagged collage of (extraordinarily) pretty images, Arnold and Ryan have collated an intricately visceral pictorial conversation of temporal and seasonal details — blizzards of plucked goose feathers, makeshift mattresses of heather, bloodied garlands of hunted hares, or the white spring light squinting through an apple tree — that not only reinterpret the verbal atmospherics of Brontë’s prose, but make an explicitly earthy beast of Heathcliff and Cathy’s love, a bond that has never seemed comfortably contained in man-made walls.

With restlessly whistling air filling in for a score, it winds up marking the year’s second substantial study of the tension between nature and grace (and with a director and cinematographer no less psychically wed than the first). Bound to provoke evenly-armied arguments about the priorities and responsibilities of filmed literature, Arnold’s imperfectly thrilling “Heights” makes the welcome point that the costume drama could stand to get out a little more.

[Images: Artificial Eye UK]

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24 responses so far

  • 1 9-07-2011 at 6:21 am

    Michael said...

    Great review Guy! Definitely worth the wait. :^) I’ve loved all of Arnold’s films so far, but I do have to admit that I’ve always hated Wuthering Heights since having to read it in high school – and the thought of watching it on film is not something that really excites me per se. But your description of its extraordinary visual qualities definitely piques my interest. I have doubts that the film will find its way to the U.S. by the end of the year, so I will go ahead and just put this one on the back burner to take out again when it does eventually come out here (I seem to recall that it took quite some time for Fish Tank to come out here, and this looks like a film that will repeat that situation.)

    Although the fest is winding down, I’m glad that there are still seemingly interesting films being shown. Hopefully some more surprises will be in store, despite many critics flying over to Toronto. I can’t wait to hear your predictions for the fest awards.

  • 2 9-07-2011 at 6:30 am

    SC said...

    “anachronistic dialogue (the most striking of which, even more than sundry “fucks” and “niggers,” is the preponderance of the humble “okay”)”

    The first two of those were in use in Britain in the early 19th century.

  • 3 9-07-2011 at 6:48 am

    Scott Coleman said...


  • 4 9-07-2011 at 6:48 am

    MattyD. said...

    My most anticipated, without a doubt. Lovely piece, Guy.

  • 5 9-07-2011 at 6:55 am

    Tisforthommy said...

    Thanks, Guy. Sounds like the kind of adaptation I would like to see way more often with this kind of canon-material. I’m very excited.

  • 6 9-07-2011 at 7:13 am

    Keith said...

    Wow. Fascinating review. I especially admire how you’re able to see past certain imperfections, not letting them sink the ship, so to speak.

    Guy, the following is lovely and TRUE, so true.

    “This is a “Wuthering Heights” of weather and flesh and grass and locked eyes, one that has the simple common sense and staggering cinematic wherewithal to know that great adaptations don’t beat great writers at their own game; they play a new game entirely.”

    I wasn’t interested in seeing the film, but I certainly am now. That’s what a well written review can and should do. Thanks, Guy, as always.

  • 7 9-07-2011 at 7:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    SC: Indeed, which is why I say the use of “okay” is more striking. (I suspect the use of all of them would come as a surprise to Brontë, in any event.)

  • 8 9-07-2011 at 8:00 am

    Rob said...

    Great review, Guy, once again. Is it “highly sexed,” as you indicated it might be previously?

  • 9 9-07-2011 at 8:22 am

    The Other James D. said...

    I haven’t even finished reading through this yet, but ANDREW BIRD! I adore him, and listen to his albums almost daily–choice songs more frequently even. Absolute musical genius and absurdist poet.

    Anyway, moving along from that paragraph….

  • 10 9-07-2011 at 8:58 am

    Andrej said...

    Jesus Christ. Last night I saw Jane Eyre, and holy crap it has gorgeous photography. If this is even better (or even, just as good), my eyes will melt. Great review, Guy!

  • 11 9-07-2011 at 9:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Rob: Not at all — my source was completely off there. Sorry.

    Andrej: It’s a somewhat different visual approach, and rather more ambitious — not that I don’t think the work in Jane Eyre is wonderful.

  • 12 9-07-2011 at 10:33 am

    Jim T said...

    Great review.
    I can’t say I’m dying to see this but I certainly will.

  • 13 9-07-2011 at 11:26 am

    AnnaZed said...

    Thank you so much for this Guy. Really, your writing style is very special ~ eminently readable yet subtly revealing of vistas of interpretation that even the most thoughtful among us may not have considered, yet without a trace of condescension. Yes, you are that good!

    I admit that I was feeling simply not interested in the concept of this film; not anymore.

  • 14 9-07-2011 at 11:47 am

    Jesse Crall said...

    I can’t hear the title “Wuthering Heights” without thinking of Kate Bush. When I see this flick, that song will play endlessly in my head. Not necessarily a bad thing, though…

  • 15 9-07-2011 at 11:58 am

    Marshall1 said...

    Red Road is a great thriller and character study, and Fish Tank is even better. Can’t wait! Great review.

  • 16 9-07-2011 at 1:46 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Stupendous review.

    Now we just have to hope this doesn’t get shrugged off as “too weird” after Venice, the way Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady did in ’96. One would like to say she had the last laugh, but even the DVD’s been out of print for years…

  • 17 9-07-2011 at 2:13 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    Forgive me if you mentioned this in the review and I might have glossed over it, but is the film presented in the same order as the novel? Does Lockwood have a substantial role?

  • 18 9-07-2011 at 2:32 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Dana: No, the prologue has been dispensed with — no Lockwood. Thanks for bringing that up, since I probably ought to have mentioned it.

    Nick: As always, thanks! I’m proud to say the Portrait of a Lady DVD’s still in circulation in the UK, or at least it was when I filched a copy off the bargain rail last year.

  • 19 9-07-2011 at 3:30 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    … indeed, and with juicy DVD features that the limited-time-only US disc didn’t even have.

  • 20 9-08-2011 at 12:28 am

    timr said...

    I wish I liked it this much, and doubt I could write as well about why I doubt it…

  • 21 9-08-2011 at 1:43 am

    matsunaga said...

    “Arnold’s imperfectly thrilling “Heights” makes the welcome point that the costume drama could stand to get out a little more”

    –Finally for quite some time, a costume drama that’s not just about the costume designer…

    I also liked the fact that Arnold stayed true on Brontë’s words to describe Heathcliff being dark-skinned…

    This is such a well written review Guy! How I wish there’s at least a trailer for this film, looking forward to it…

  • 22 9-13-2011 at 12:18 pm

    via collins said...

    Just screened it in Toronto, and will fall in right behind you Guy. One of the most visceral films I’ve seen, just an amazing achievement. I’ve no special interest in Bronte, but I just know I’ll see this one a few more times.

    How stunning the endless variations on moors wide shots that reprise throughout. I’ve never seen them this way before, the ways of imagination. It would be such a loss to see this one anywhere but a high quality cinema.

    Well bloody done Andrea!