Friday, October 5, 2012

Movie Review: Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights
Directed by: Andrea Arnold.
Written by: Andrea Arnold & Olivia Hetreed based on the novel by Emily Bronte.
Starring: Kaya Scodelario (Catherine Earnshaw), James Howson (Heathcliff), Lee Shaw (Hindley Earnshaw), Nichola Burley (Isabella Linton), Amy Wren (Frances Earnshaw), Oliver Milburn (Mr. Linton), Steve Evets (Joseph), James Northcote (Edgar Linton), Paul Hilton (Mr. Earnshaw), Shannon Beer (Young Catherine Earnshaw), Solomon Glave (Young Heathcliff).

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one the best known novels in the English language, and according to IMDB, this most recent film is the 15th screen adaptation of it. So, if you’re going to make another adaptation, you damn well better have something new to add. Luckily for audiences, that is precisely what Andrea Arnold brings to this enduring story – something new. This is a rawer, more primal, more animalistic adaptation that I have seen before, and it adds a racial element to the story that works remarkably well.

The movie tells the story completely from Heathcliff’s point of view – and Arnold casts first Solomon Glave and then James Howston – both black – to play the role of the orphan who is taken in by Mr. Earnshaw as one of his own. Growing up, he falls in love with Cathy (first Shannon Beer than Kaya Scodelario), and she with him. But Heathcliff runs afoul of brother Hindley (this time the reason is clearly racial as when Mr. Earnshaw says to Hindley “I thought you would treat him like a brother”, he responds “He’s not my brother, he’s just a nigger”), so when Mr. Earnshaw dies and Hindley becomes master of Wuthering Heights, the family estate, he makes Heathcliff into a servant (in this version, essentially a slave) instead of a member of the family. But despite what happens between them, Heathcliff and Catherine remain in love – the fact they are kept apart destroys them, and everyone around them.

That is the same story that every adaptation of the book tells – and like many of them, this one stops at the half way point of the novel (which is just as well – I never really liked all the stuff about an aging Heathcliff, and the kids from the first half growing up). But this version of Wuthering Heights feels much more animalistic, more primal than the previous versions. Heathcliff is more up front with his animosity than ever before (he uses some decidedly no period language to express himself).  But the relationships are much more physical than before – the beatings Heathcliff takes are more brutal, Cathy literally licking his wounds for him, Hindley and his wife screwing like animals outside. This, and the multiple shots of animals, draws connections between the people and the animals. And this underlines the inherent cruelty at the heart of the story. Wuthering Heights is a story about cruelty, as Hindley is cruel to Heathcliff and to a certain extent so is Cathy, who drives him away. But when Heathcliff returns, now richer than the rest of the people he left behind, he becomes even crueller – especially how he treats poor, dumb Isabella, just to get back at the man who married Cathy. These are all horrible people – perhaps they would not be if society hadn’t kept Heathcliff and Cathy apart.

The performances in the movie are excellent. James Howson and Solomon Glave do an excellent job of making Heathcliff`s anger feel real. He’s more dangerous than in past versions, more vindictive. Glave is mostly silent in his half of the movie, always lurking and listening to what everyone is saying. Just as good is Kaya Scodelario and Shannon Beer as the two versions of Cathy. Beer and Glave have a much more physical connection to each other. Howson and Scodelario have to keep their distance from each other, but their pleasantries are packed with meaning and heartbreak.

Co-written and directed by Andrea Arnold, Wuthering Heights is more proof that she is one of the most interesting young directors working right now. Her debut film, the thriller Red Lights, was great until the conclusion, and her follow-up, Fish Tank, was an excellent depiction of a seduction of a teenager by an older man. In Wuthering Heights, she uses hand held camera work – with a narrower aspect ratio than normal (1:1.37) that makes the film feel more immediate and real. Arnold has done something quite special with her Wuthering Heights – she has made one of the most well-known stories feel new and different.

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