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.

11 Responses to “Wuthering Heights (2012)”

  1. Can’t wait. Is there a trailer for it somewhere?

  2. Oui.

  3. “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…..”

    Yes indeed on every count! I used the term ‘impressionistic” in my own site re-cap and it does define the film visual schematics and narrative canvas. Arnold was shooting for something far away from what Wyler in 1939 and other BBC adaptations aimed for. The nakes, savage emotions are explored, and the novel’s atmospheric bleakness is given center stage. You piece here is exemplary and for me well within the sphere of praise I allot this sumptuous and deeply felt. If I were to comprise a ten-best list of 2012 at this early stage, this would make the Top Ten for sure.

  4. That looks kinda great. Love that they finally got the race thing in there instead of just interpreting Heathcliff as being a swarthy brunette.

  5. JB, I’m eager for you to see this since you’re such a big fan of the novel. Though I’m re-reading it now, my connection to it is tenuous at best so I think you’re either going to love this adaptation a whole lot more, or kick it to the curb entirely as inadequate. I don’t think there will be a middle ground.

    Sam, I have to admit “impressionistic” is a code word for me signifying either a movie that is A) not strongly driven by story or B) I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. But it fits a movie like this that is so largely visual in nature and relies on a lot of imagery (moths and murdered rabbits for example) that don’t necessarily jibe with the other actions on screen but work as visual metaphors, etc.

    In this case, I use impressionistic in all of these senses.

  6. Craig, I was applauding your use of the word, as I feel it was a perfect fit. I have used the word myself, and I dare say Arnold herself probably used the word in describing her film to others.

    It is a beautiful word in the English language and my comment above was fully in support of your use of it. Likewise I am in full and completely agreement with everything else you say in your review, in case my earlier comment did not come off as such.

    I

  7. Ha ha, no I wasn’t being defensive. Just admitting that for me it’s a loaded word. It fits the movie to a T, but it also helps me convey something that is hard to put into words.

  8. I get ya! LOL!!! In any case I just found this, to show some in-print critics out there are toying with the word, if in a slightly altered context:

    Critics’ Pick! Easily the most gloriously feral literary adaption of any canonized work to date. This jittery, elemental take uses impressionistic visuals and unkempt, off-the-cuff style to emphasize its characters’ inner turmoil.”
    – David Fear, Time Out New York

  9. What makes me nervous is he also uses the word “elemental”

    I fear anyone reading my review and assuming I lifted all my ideas from someone else. If anyone wants to see the notes I scribbled in the dark during the screening however, “elemental” is there. I swear!

  10. Knowing the breath of your descriptive writing I’d be convinced it was the other way around!

    But both words fit and there are some overlaps all over. They are great words and just unavoidable for use.

  11. The elemental idea popped into my head because of the sound design that emphasized the wind and the rain and crackling fires and the production design which emphasized the fog and the mud. In my head I literally thought of “Earth, Air, Water and Fire” and that tied into the elemental animal emotions of the film. Basic, root level stuff.

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