This is not your grandmother’s Emily Brontë
[Wuthering Heights opened 10/5 in New York. It opens 10/12 in Los Angeles, Portland and Washington D.C. with further expansions to follow]
With Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) has revisited a timeless though sometimes musty literary classic and come up with a spare, intense, personal vision unlike any of the many others to come before it. In some ways, it’s a vision more true to Emily Brontë’s original novel – a modest Yorkshire farmhouse replaces the big gothic mansion we’ve come to expect, Heathcliff is more the “dark-skinned gipsy” as Bronte describes him, and much of the story is given over to Heathcliff and Cathy as children who are played by age-appropriate actors performing before a camera for the first time instead of movie stars – but the story has been pruned back and stripped down to a basic, primal core. Sensual, elemental and impressionistic, it is invigorating visual filmmaking of both great beauty and sometimes disturbing violence. Arnold doesn’t so much tell you a story as immerse you in it.
Beat for beat, Arnold largely follows Bronte’s original narrative, but in the first half, the story evolves largely though the perspective of the children rather than the novel’s third person observers. Cathy is a wild child and the interloper Heathcliff is even wilder. Misunderstood by everyone (with Heathcliff especially the object of much cruelty), they form a natural, intense bond, but they’re too immature and ill-equipped to even understand such notions as romance, let alone how to deal with it. When they’re torn apart, partly by circumstance and partly by choice, they’re left with jagged emotional wounds that time, civilization and maturity can never heal properly. Reunited some years later, the old hurts are reopened and the pair is doomed to tragedy.
Wuthering Heights is a challenge to watch because Arnold eschews most of the dialogue, there’s no musical score to guide you through the characters’ emotional states and it’s filmed in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio which emphasizes how, for young Cathy and Heathcliff, there is no world outside of the one they’ve created together. In place of conversation and score, Arnold has amped up the sound design. Something is always making noise, whether it’s a roaring fire, or creaking floorboards or a farm animal or the constant wind and rain or even a character’s heartbeat, there is a constant feeling of nature just outside the door threatening to carry everything away.
By design, Arnold’s vision is somewhat inscrutable. She’s dealing with emotions that aren’t easy to put into words, especially as they’re felt by characters without the experience or maturity to articulate them. The result is a movie that is itself difficult to describe. At the same time Wuthering Heights is completely captivating and never dull. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing and always a bit beguilingly mysterious, Arnold has internalized Brontë in a very personal way and she’s rechanneled her respectfully but entirely uniquely.
Filed under: Review