Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights

***

Reviewed by: Val Kermode

Wuthering Heights seems a strange choice for director Andrea Arnold after her award winning films Red Road and Fish Tank. But this is no ordinary costume drama. Those with fond memories of the Olivier version may be disappointed. This is a pared down version of the story, in fact it ends at an earlier point than the Brontë original. There is no background music, just the natural sounds of the moorland and the old houses. While the Grange is a haven of elegance and bright chandeliers, Wuthering Heights is a dark, bare-floored farmhouse set in a sea of mud. And Arnold has chosen not to use widescreen, a decision which keeps the atmosphere intimate and claustrophobic. Even out on the moors there is no sense of freedom. The low skies and the continuous gloom seem to keep these characters trapped.

Arnold is fond of presenting characters on the edge of society and was naturally drawn to Heathcliff, the ultimate outsider. The film begins and ends with him , desperate in his grief and anger, and we see events through his eyes.

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The story will be familiar to most: a Yorkshire farmer on a trip to Liverpool finds a homeless boy on the streets and takes him home to his family in their isolated farmhouse. The boy is given the name Heathcliff and the older son, Hindley, and daughter, Catherine, are told to treat him like a brother. Instead the usurped Hindley, (Lee Shaw) treats him cruelly, while Catherine is drawn to him as a soulmate.

A large part of the film deals with the childhood events, with newcomers Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer as Heathcliff and Cathy. The dialogue is sparse, but the use of hand-held camera and some extreme close-ups establishes the intimacy of their relationship, particularly in an early scene where Heathcliff is riding behind Cathy on horseback. Her hair fills the screen and we hear just the sound of his breathing and the horse's hooves. It is also significant that Cathy is leading, while Heathcliff is being taken with no choice.

The use of black actors for the part of Heathcliff gives the tale a new dimension. The original novel makes clear his foreigness. He is described at one point as “the little Lascar”. Hindley, meanwhile, is portrayed here as a skinhead, as are his local friends. His violence, which includes kicking, and his use of the word “nigger” give his hatred a modern resonance. The fact that the young Cathy runs around in what look like jogging trousers makes us feel this could almost be some present-day urban wasteland where the outsider is being tormented.

Although this early part of the film is very well done, concentrating for so long on the young characters rather unbalances the story. And when the older actors appear there is too little resemblance between them and the children. Only three years have elapsed, and it is unbelievable that these are the same people. James Howson and Kaya Scodelario then have a difficult task to convince us as the adult Heathcliff and Catherine. There is also a mismatch in the acting styles of the newcomer Howson and the more polished Scodelario.

Andrea Arnold has done well to shift the emphasis from a love story to a dark tale of hatred, cruelty and revenge. Wuthering Heights is both shelter and prison, a prison which creaks in the night, where fragments of conversation are overheard and where people are glimpsed through cracks; sometimes only parts of people. From this, the young Heathcliff has to make sense of the world. It is suggested here that he may not even understand the language. And when he speaks up he is beaten.

This is an impressive treatment which, though it may confound some expectations, manages to stay true to the spirit of the original book while delivering a very contemporary message. It is a pity that the last section of the film rather lets it down. Having decided not to use the whole of the original novel, Arnold seems unsure exactly where and how to end it. The result is not as tight as it could have been.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2011
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Wuthering Heights packshot
An adaptation of Emily Brontë's famous tale about an isolated family, a trouble outsider, and their destructive passions.
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Director: Andrea Arnold

Writer: Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed

Starring: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Oliver Milbur, n Nichola Burley, Steve Evets

Year: 2011

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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