It’s a tale as familiar as Romeo and Juliet—a disadvantaged orphan boy is brought into a farmer’s household and is raised alongside the man’s own children. The boy, Heathcliff, forms a passionate bond with the farmer’s daughter, Catherine, and together the two face complicated lives of love, jealousy, pain, betrayal and grief.
Wuthering Heights in its newest form is undeniably a work of art. The photography and overall mood of the piece are unforgettably beautiful in their bleakness.
But while none would claim Emily Brontë’s single Gothic novel to be in any way cheerful, this particular retelling of the story of doomed lovers is overwhelmingly dreary. Wuthering Heights is a classic tale worth its melancholy state, but this film at times is hard to keep watching. From the endless rain, wind and mud of the moors to the strange, selfish characters themselves, the film weighs on the soul.
Directed by Oscar-winning Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank), Wuthering Heights’ pacing is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The New World, where instead of Heathcliff and Catherine, it was John Smith and Pocahantas who slowly, silently wandered fields and rolled about the grass. Robbie Ryan, the director of photography, has been a long-time partner with Arnold, and together they have developed a unique style of storytelling, one that includes the landscape as a character in itself. Ryan has won four awards to date for his work on this film, and deservedly so. His perspective through the lens is both sensitive and bold, and very, very honest.
The acting cannot be faulted. Every role is played impecably well, making the period believability nearly infallible. Both Kaya Scodelario (Clash of the Titans, Skins) as the adult Catherine and Shannon Beer as the younger version were utterly convincing as the coy, love-torn heroine. It is James Howson, however, the adult Heathcliff himself, who steals the show. In his first-ever film role, Howson could have been plucked right off the pages of Brontë’s novel, with all the angst, confusion, awkwardness and beauty of the original protagonist. He makes the audience empathize with him, yet he still holds them at a distance, keeping the attention solely on himself to the very last reel.
The strange thing about Wuthering Heights is how uncomfortable the relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine is to watch, particularly when they are children. It does not feel sweet or innocent, but rather dark, sensuous and disturbing. It is clear that writers Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (Girl With A Pearl Earring) wanted to present a very unique, even modern, interpretation to the 1847 book, and embellished the story in ways that, though not unimaginable, are rather unorthodox. One could just as easily have set the entire film on a contemporary English council housing estate, and it would have the same unsettling, gray feeling to it.
English teachers everywhere are probably clasping hands and thanking the heavens that a fresh version of the story has appeared in the public eye for discussion. But for some, however, this take may be a step too far. Wuthering Heights was a dark enough story in which to lose oneself; this latest telling is darker still.
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writer: Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed
Starring: James Howson, Kaya Scodelario, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave, James Northcote, Nichola Burley
Release Date: Oct. 5, 2012 (limited)