Those damned moors; the wind always tearing across them, thunderstorms forever gathering above them.
The Bronte sisters clearly had a tough time of things, growing up with disease and death all around them, ripping from them their loved ones. Regularly reminded of their place in life; the status of husbands they should be looking for; and the more independent way of thinking that they should turn away from, they fought to publish their work under male pseudonyms, slowly dwindling in number through tuberculosis. It’s only with the passage of time that they have come to be regarded as some of the greatest authors from the period, penning several literary classics including, most notably, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
Introduced to an angry, despondent man, consumed by equal parts rage and despair, holed up in a room where the names “Heathcliff” and “Catherine” are etched into the woodwork, the story flashes back to the years earlier, where the Earnshaw family take a young homeless boy into their household. With the mother long lost, and the father now giving more attention to the newcomer, the eldest son, Hindley, takes an immediate dislike to the young boy, who is distinctly rough around the edges and consistently rebellious against any kind of sophistication. Nevertheless the boy, Heathcliff, grows close to the Earnshaw daughter, Catherine, and they find themselves to be kindred spirits – frequently running away and roaming the moors, the moody weather and atmospheric environment epitomising the brewing emotion they feel towards one another.
As they grow up, however, it becomes ever more apparent that they can never be together – Heathcliff’s status as little more than a heathen outcast deemed to be far below the stature required to take Catherine’s hand in marriage, and when Catherine inadvertently happens across their rich new neighbours, and is taken into a far more prestigious household and introduced to a wholly different way of life, it feels like her love for Heathcliff has been left far behind; lost in the ether. But a love like theirs does not get consumed: it only consumes.
Director Andrea Arnold has fashioned a stunningly atmospheric period piece for her third feature, after her first two Award-Winning films, Fish Tank and Red Road. Red Road was a powerful debut – an atypical revenge drama which was even, at times, overwhelmed by its own bleakness; Fish Tank was a masterful and vastly superior sophomore effort, a kitchen-sink, council estate coming-of-age drama brimming with hope amidst almost unending despair.
Wuthering Heights is almost the next logical step: longer, far more expansive in narrative scope, and boasting a more adventurous period setting, far removed from the commonplace council estates we are used to from the director’s previous works.
Daring in its approach to the source material – as you might only expect from this talented Brit filmmaker – Arnold’s ‘Heights feels like a period film in name only. Whilst it stays true to the sentiments and substance of Bronte’s classic novel, and overtly maintains the period setting, its heart beats to a modern drum, and Arnold appears to have fashioned a classically-minded piece that will still speak to the modern generation, and still feels of some relevance, rather than just being another antiquated barrage of clichés from times gone by.
Her most daring change, in some minds, might have been the depiction of Heathcliff as being black (Arnold had originally searched, unsuccessfully, for a real-life gypsy to play the part), although again it only speaks to the talents of the director that she so capably manages to integrate this change into the proceedings – both in terms of the characterisations and dialogue – that the end result feels perfectly natural; so much so that you find yourself wondering whether Bronte might have actually intended it to be that way. After all, the writer may have described her character as being a “dark-skinned gypsy”, but she probably never expected him to be portrayed quite like this – and yet it makes so much sense, not just for the movie, but for the role itself.
Arnold’s always had an eye for young talent and her drama is arguably at its peak during the first half, where the younger actors take centre stage; their strong performances driving the feature. Solomon Glave plays the troubled young Heathcliff, bringing forth to bear a surprising amount of emotion and even character development through precious little dialogue – literally just half a dozen lines. His Heathcliff is not the most sympathetic protagonist, but, then again, he was never meant to be; instead just an unsophisticated, untamed youth driven by the burgeoning emotions within.
Shannon Beer is equally good as the young Catherine, similarly compelled to follow her emotions, despite her father’s wishes and the curses from all around her, proclaiming that both her and Heathcliff will be damned forever for their unruly, unrestrained behaviour. She perfectly matches the free spirit encapsulated by Heathcliff – albeit with less justifiable angst – and though she is just as precocious, it’s arguably the taming of her free spirit that ultimately consumes her.
Once the transition is made to adulthood, in a strange turn of events it’s actually hard to accommodate the adult actors who embody these characters that we have already spent a considerable amount of time with.
James Howson certainly fits the part more easily, making the transition slightly smoother, but Kaya Scodelario (who you may recognise from Skins) is initially quite jarring as the grown-up Catherine, and it takes a while for her performance to eclipse the shock that the young girl played so well by Shannon Beer has grown into such a physically different woman.
It’s certainly a testament to the younger cast members that they carry so much of the film on their relatively inexperienced shoulders, and that they show us quite so much with relative few words to conventionally expand their characters.
Arnold also manages to capture an undeniable emotional atmosphere, which itself is a character in the piece, albeit an elemental one. With breathtaking shots of the almost alien heath-dominated moors – the thunderstorms and relentless winds bringing the speakers (and the bass) to life in such a way as to almost give us a score where, technically, there is none – Arnold forges a powerful portrayal of these characters’ lives as symbolised by the very landscape they exist in.
Even the director’s preferred aspect ratio – the now-uncommon ‘fullscreen’ 1.33:1 – works surprisingly well, although it will no doubt be of much chagrin to cinephiles, who have fought so hard to see widescreen become mainstream. The deeper frame, bookended by huge black pillars, actually lends itself well to the symbolically unstable handheld close-up shots, whilst further exaggerating the alien feel to the moor landscape. Indeed it’s only once where I noticed that the framing did not suit the movie – when a thick mist rolled over the moors – here, the longer shot just smacked of budgetary restraint and did not encapsulate the kind of panoramic images that the director was perhaps looking for. Still, you’d be surprised by how well fullscreen works.
Unfortunately, no matter how Malickian the imagery is, nor how award-winning the cinematography is, Arnold’s fondness for quaint, off-kilter shots of her cast – or her set, or, more often than not, of bluntly symbolic dead animals – with no overt action or plot progression to speak of, is just the wrong side of what some might class as acceptable visual stylisation here. It goes that step too far, and without any of Terrence Malick’s (The Tree of Life, The New World, The Thin Red Line) trademark ethereal narration to further add to the experience, it doesn’t take long before this distant, elementally-driven style smacks of being slightly ponderous – perhaps even tedious. Even though she cleverly uses the very lyrics in songs sung by various characters across the narrative as signposts towards key plot points both passed and future, she still cannot escape the fact that there is simply not enough happening to keep the momentum going.
With the tagline preaching that “Love is a force of nature”, Arnold has admirably interpreted this in a daringly literal way, and given us a film which is as emotionally potent in its palpable weather-driven atmosphere as it is in its strong characterisations, but in spending quite so long literally establishing the mood, she appears to have forgotten that a bit of appropriate editing will likely do all films some good.
Her free reign here undermines the picture, threatening to switch you off even before you get to the meat of the narrative (which, for literary fans, does not incorporate the third act; the third generation story – as has been omitted in many of the book’s adaptations). For as much as she deserves credit for crafting such a tangible atmosphere – unlike almost any movie I’ve come across in recent times – the obsession goes to her head, and she forgets, until its almost too late, to actually tell us any kind of story.
Interestingly this latest adaptation of Wuthering Heights was originally set to star Michael Fassbender and Abbie Cornish (or even Natalie Portman) as the doomed kindred spirits, long before Arnold took over on the project, and changed not only the entire cast, but also the entire direction of the movie. Whilst I was eagerly anticipating her vision of the classic novel, I have to say that the unduly untamed feel to her version – almost entirely in terms of length and injudicious editing – leaves us with a film which simply cannot compete with the more classical approaches taken to the Bronte works, including the Fassbender-starring adaptation of Jane Eyre which I recently reviewed. It’s a shame because, with a little tweaking, Arnold could have no doubt maintained her trademark style without asking too much of her already patient audience members.
The end result is still a strikingly atmospheric movie, which features some surprisingly strong performances not least because of the relative inexperience of the young cast, but also because of the comparative lack of actual dialogue that they get to work with. By the end of the piece you do know these characters; you understand, relate to, and believe the feelings that overwhelm them, and are prepared to forgive much of the slow-paced near-monotony that previously drove the plot to a standstill, just on the basis of a closing blend of perfectly-chosen images set to a superb track by Mumford & Sons. But that still leaves this film a flawed – and perhaps even for some, fatally so – period drama, audacious in the originality of its ideas, but not wholly refined in terms of the final product.
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