Film review: Wuthering Heights (2011), directed by Andrea Arnold
Based on the novel by Emily Brontë is the latest adaptation of Wuthering Heights, by critically acclaimed director Andrea Arnold, who for this version has chosen mainly non-actors (i.e. people who haven’t acted before) for the roles. Thought it worked surprisingly well, but we’ll get to the actors later.
A foreign-looking boy (Solomon Glave) is brought to a house the Yorkshire moors by a Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), who found him on the streets of Liverpool and decided to do some Christian charity by taking him home and basically adopting him as his own son. The boy is named Heathcliff, and his new sister Catherine (Shannon Beer) takes an immediate interest in him – but his new older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) takes an instant dislike.
Bullied and beaten through his teenage years, Heathcliff comes to like Cathy more and more. They’re friends, and perhaps even more than that. Then, circumstances fall so that Cathy gets taken in by a wealthy family in the area, the Lintons, and goes from ladette to lady, so to speak. Surely she can no longer hang out with the likes of Heathcliff when Edgar Linton has so much to offer?
This review will contain spoilers for people unacquainted with the novel or previous adaptations.
I was going to say “well, you know the rest”, because if you have read the book or seen a previous adaptation, you know that Wuthering Heights is often hailed as one of the greatest romances of all time. Why on earth people insist on classifying it as such, I really don’t know, but it seems to have legitimised calling other abusive, dysfunctional, so-called romances “great” (i.e. Twilight).
Crikey, I hardly know where to start, so let’s do a roll call to begin with: Frances is played by Amy Wren, Joseph by Steve Evets and Nelly by Simone Jackson. Frances, of course, kicks the bucket giving birth to Hareton; Joseph doesn’t seem as preachy (or as Northern) as I remember him; and Ellen Dean is not the narrator of the story. There is no Mr. Lockwood. In fact, there are no Catherine Juniors or Lintons either.
That’s right, Cathy dies and the grief-stricken Heathcliff stumbles around the moors and that’s where it ends. Not a mention of the baby surviving, nor that Isabella (Nichola Burley) was made pregnant. It’s a shame, but apparently this was down to the director being very thorough in her approach and the movie would have been twice as long had she tried putting the second half of the book in. I feel a bit cheated.
Funny how this one seems to pay tribute to the 1939 version with Laurence Olivier, which I believe also leaves out the second generation, and the latest Jane Eyre borrows a fair few ideas from its 1943 counterpart with Orson Welles. Retro. Not necessarily in a good way. Both of the most recent Brontë adaptations use natural light as well, which adds a lot of atmosphere, but I wasn’t keen on going from a dark screen to one that’s bright white, even if it was meant to have that effect, because it mirrored what the character on screen would be experiencing.
For most of the film, we stay with the younger actors. Then, once Heathcliff has returned a rich man, he has turned into James Howson and Cathy into Kaya Scodelario. The reasoning behind this is that they wanted to dwell on the childhood part, but considering Heathcliff is only gone for like four years, it seems strange to suddenly have this other actor in the part. So, Cathy married Edgar Linton (James Northcote) and moved to Thrushcross Grange while Heathcliff was away, and shazamm, she’s a different actress. It just doesn’t gel for me. It doesn’t seem like a natural progression, unless it had been a ten year gap or so.
The film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio (non-widescreen) which felt really odd to begin with, but I got used to it after a while. Unusual to see that nowadays, and I’m not crazy about it. Not for the cinema, anyway. I’m also not crazy about the font used for the titles/credits. Seriously, it’s Bauhaus 93 or something very similar. It’s such a 1970s (or possibly 1980s) style font and really doesn’t fit in with a period drama, even if it’s trying to be avant-garde.
If you’re a fan of handheld cameras, you’ll love the shooting style here. If that type of shot instead rather makes you seasick, you’ll get seasick. It’s used a lot, and things go in and out of focus. Another thing used constantly is nature shots, preferably close-ups. I half expected to hear David Attenborough’s voice. I love nature, and the shots are absolutely beautiful, but are they really needed? Are they really relevant to the story?
The rolling hills and the wind and the rain adds definite flavour of the moors which comes through in Emily Brontë’s writing, so it felt as if the feeling was captured, if perhaps not the spirit of the story. Which in turn is another thing – the film is entirely through Heathcliff’s perspective. This works well in general, but it means that the best line in the entire book is omitted. Because the silly bugger never hears it in the book, as he decides “well, sod you then!” after overhearing the first part of Cathy’s speech, and buggers off. That’s right, you get none of this:
My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees — my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff — he’s always, always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being
Boo! I think at some point, pregnant Cathy does utter “I am Heathcliff” before she passes out, but that doesn’t really do anything at that point.
Speaking of Cathy, she doesn’t knock on windows crying “Let me in!” as a ghost. There are no ghosts at all, only the odd, blurry hallucination in a window. She’s also not quite as barking mad as she normally is when she’s pregnant. She’s a little bit loopy, but doesn’t seem like she’s completely lost it. There’s a bit where you see through a window how feathers are tossed into the air, but we don’t get to see that scene from inside the bedroom.
As Andrea Arnold pointed out in the preview I went to, all the previous Wuthering Heights adaptations have all been quite romantic and they were all made by men. She, on the other hand, has created an adaptation that’s gritty and dirty. Yes, even the F words gets used. Most of the audience (including me) couldn’t stop ourselves laughing when the young Heathcliff barks “f**k you c**ts!” at the Linton household.
Before going to see this film, I voiced concerns about how arty it is and that I therefore would most likely be bored stiff. Well, at least the seats were comfortable. (First time I’ve been to see a film at Broadway, I think. Good venue.) It wasn’t as boring as I feared. Sure, it was slow, very slow. And sure, the gloomy nature close-ups were arty, as was the lighting (or lack thereof), and sure there wasn’t a whole lot of dialogue to go around so it really wasn’t a great film if you’re visually impaired, and taken into account that it’s Wuthering Heights, which immediately puts you at a disadvantage as far as I’m concerned … but I didn’t fall asleep, nor did I feel the urge to.
It’s pretty good, as arty indie films go. It looks great and it’s a well-made film. I probably liked it better after the Q&A session with Andrea Arnold, as she came across very well – and even found it amusing that people were reading things into her storytelling that she had never intended – like a white horse in one of her previous films, how people kept saying it was a great symbol for this, that and the other … when in fact, she had actually wanted a brown horse originally, but they couldn’t find one, so she had to settle for a white!
The acting is good, especially considering most of the cast aren’t actually trained actors, the scenery stunning and the locations look like they belong in Wuthering Heights. There is a lack of detail in places, such as no bird skulls, for instance, but the Squeeze did point out there were some bird skeletons in the corner of a room – but that isn’t the same as Cathy showing Heathcliff some eggs and Heathcliff coming back later, handing her the decapitated skulls of the chicks in a gift box. Instead, there is a scene where he sprinkles some ground heather into his eyes so that his eyes tear up, to look like he’s been crying, but that’s not quite as callous.
If you want animal cruelty, though, there is plenty of that. Stabbing sheep in the throat, twisting the neck of a rabbit, hanging dogs from their collars (there are two of these – Isabella’s dog, of course, and one that little Hareton hangs up later). Granted, no animals would have actually been hurt during the filming, because the UK is luckily a nation of animal lovers, but it’s still really uncomfortable to watch.
Considering Wuthering Heights is meant to be one of the greatest love stories ever told (yeah right), I feel a lack of romance. There’s a bit of obsession, sure, but it feels a bit … flat. Love? Meh. Maybe some kind of childish affection. Passion? They smear mud over each other at one point, but it’s playful more than it is sexy (granted, we’re talking about them only being in their early teens at this stage), and it feels a lot more innocent than it has been in other adaptations. They get told off by their elders when they run off over the moors, but I didn’t get the feeling they went off to make passionate love among the heather. More like they laid on their backs telling each other what the clouds reminded them of. In the previous adaptation (ITV, 2009), there was no doubt what they were up to in their lonesome. Here, they hardly even kissed. And they’re supposed to be these star-crossed lovers who are doomed to be apart until they die, when they shall forever be together? I really don’t get it, and I do mean that as in, I get it even less than I normally do.
Final verdict for Wuthering Heights, which was never meant to be the definitive version anyway (no, really), is that if you like arty, film festival type films, you’ll enjoy this. If you like Wuthering Heights, you might like this, or you’ll be too upset that it’s from Heathcliff’s perspective and they miss off the second generation and their miseries completely and it’s just lacking. If you just like a costume drama, you should probably look elsewhere. This isn’t exactly bonnets and cravats and polite conversations with the vicar; it’s dark, grimy, miserable, abusive, and it contains most of a human’s bodily fluids.
The Squeeze, a total Wuthering Heights novice, rated it as 3 out of 5. It wasn’t really his kind of movie, but he thoght it was well-made. I’m leaning toward 2, because I missed the second generation and found too many things missing from the novel, but there is no doubt it’s a well-crafted piece of cinema. Just a shame it’s Wuthering Heights, eh? 😉 That, and because the shaky camera work with its shifty focus annoyed me, it doesn’t matter that it was incredibly fitting when it comes to tone and feel, because I lacked the passion that even death couldn’t kill.
So therefore, I’m going to do a mean of our scores and give it a 2.5 out of 5 feathers, and I might consider giving the book another read.
Wuthering Heights opens in the UK today and at some point in 2012 in North America. (There’s very little info on when it opens in other countries, outside of film festivals, but keep your eyes peeled.)