May 10, 2012|
(UK) Directed by Andrea Arnold. Starring James Howson, Kaya Scodelario, Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer, Nichola Burley, Lee Shaw. Category IIA.
In an unexpectedly bold and refreshing cinematic experiment, Andrea Arnold tackles Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” and presents the often-adapted staple of English literature like you’ve never seen it before. Peeling the intricate, multigenerational classic story down to a simple and focused tragic romance between two troubled youths, the UK writer-director’s first period drama and third feature—following “Red Road” and award-darling “Fish Tank”—is shot with an almost obsessive emphasis on poetic naturalism. The result, though undoubtedly admirable, isn’t entirely successful, as the film gains an unforgettably stunning look from such highly-stylized aesthetics but falls flat emotionally and dramatically.
Those familiar with the 1847 novel—or William Wyler’s faithful 1939 Hollywood version—will easily spot the radical structural and narrative alternations in Arnold’s intriguing rendering. Of the book’s two narrators, maid Nelly is reduced to a supporting character and houseguest Lockwood is completely cut out of the picture. Instead, the story is told through the perspective of our Byronic hero, Heathcliff (played by Solomon Glave as a teen and James Howson as an adult), an orphan picked up by Mr. Earnshaw from the streets of Liverpool and raised as his foster son at the titular rural northern England manor. Taking the book’s “dark skin, dark hair, dark mood” description quite literally, Arnold casts Heathcliff not as a white gypsy but as an African boy—a daring decision that gives a strongly racist angle to the hostility surrounding him.
Though constantly running afoul of Earnshaw’s sadist son Hindley (Lee Shaw), Heathcliff becomes increasingly closer to Hindley’s younger sister Catherine (Shannon Beer, and later Kaya Scodelario as a young woman). Their intimacy is both chaste and sexually charged. Just when we’re used to watching their innocent frolicking around the farmlands, surprising scenes of unsettling intensity appear as she licks blood off of his wounded back, or he straddles her while she’s lying down, struggling in a muddy field. He’s a cruel man, a force of nature; but though his love is brutal, it’s also painfully pure. The tale takes an agonizing turn when Hindley becomes master of the house after his father’s death, and briskly degrades Heathcliff to a servant—someone whom Catherine cannot marry.
The patient and exquisite handheld camerawork by Robbie Ryan (who has collaborated with Arnold on her previous films) impeccably frames the natural landscapes of the beautiful Yorkshire moors, the fickle weather and the human actions. There’s a rare, tactile quality in his lensing that allows us to enter Heathcliff’s body, feel the wind sweeping by his feet, taste the raindrops on his face and smell the scent of Catherine’s flowing hair on a horseback ride. The stunning visuals, however, don’t pay off in the storytelling, especially when the film enters its second half, when the protagonist—having left Catherine and Wuthering Heights unannounced on a stormy night—returns three years later as a wealthy man, seeking love and revenge. In the original material, the story races towards a tumultuous climax at this point; but in the film, the repetitive display of slow, atmospheric sequences and draggy pacing—created by editor Nicolas Chaudeurge—result in an aesthetic fatigue and deprive the story of its fierce power and passion.
Arnold also took a misstep by casting non-professionals (with the exception of Scodelario) in the leading roles. Subject matter-wise, “Heights” can be compared to Cary Fukunaga’s solid rendition of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and Jane Campion’s “Bright Star.” A great part of these two films’ successes is due to the visceral performances by their stellar casts. And unfortunately, in “Heights,” the central thespians’ monotonous delivery creates an emotional vacuum that prevents us from fully sympathizing with the characters. Natural lights and sounds complete the austere and taciturn film, which, like most “Heights” adaptations, ends before the yarns of the next generation begin. Bizarrely, the final sequences and end credits are accompanied by an arguably unfitting Mumford & Sons song. Never mind, “Heights“ may not deserve all of its 128-minute running time, but at least it remains a gorgeous picture for the eyes.