Wuthering Heights (2012)

Starring: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave, Oliver Milburn, Paul Hilton, Nichola Burley, Lee Shaw, James Northcote, Amy Wren, Eve Coverley, Steve Evets.

Director: Andrea Arnold
Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Date: October 5, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $28 Thousand

Ecosse Films, Film4, HanWay Films, Goldcrest Films International, UK Film Council, Screen Yorkshire, and Oscilloscope Pictures.

Written by: Andrea Arnold and Olivia Hetreed; screen story by Olivia Hetreed; adapted from the novel “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë.
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1/2 (out of 5 stars)

“Wuthering Heights” returns to the big screen in a year where classic novels Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, and even The Hobbit are all experiencing cinematic rebirths in the coming months.  None will likely be as bold and challenging as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights however, an artistic modernized interpretation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel.

For those not familiar with the novel, an orphaned boy named Heathcliff is taken in by the Earnshaw family and immediately forges a connection to Catherine, a girl of similar age, with the two becoming close and falling for one another.  In this version of the tale, their relationship is one of time spent and less in the ways of verbal dialogue and while their love is clear, essentially becoming de facto siblings prevents them from pursuing their unrequited passions.

The Earnshaw home is a bustling one but a darker and more intense environment than Heathcliff initially recognizes.  Dealing with his own anger and seething frustration, much of that below-the-line rage is exhibited outwardly by the Earnshaw patriarch (Paul Hilton), but the family crumbles and fractures upon his death.  Catherine’s brother, Hindley (Lee Shaw), begins to exert his will over the farm and homestead and is even more damaged than his father emotionally.  Children are born, relationships begin, and lost in the mix of these emotional entanglements are Heathcliff and Catherine, their love given to their marriages to others, but still passionate for one another, accentuated as each gets older and more mature.

After winning an Academy Award for her short film Wasp in 2005, Andrea Arnold has worked sparingly as a filmmaker, delivering one new film every three years or so since.  Following Red Road in 2006 and Fish Tank in 2009, Wuthering Heights is Arnold’s latest film and one that drinks in a constant supply of atmosphere and mood, but falters when it comes to delivering a complete and rewarding viewing experience.  Heavy on artistry and light on cohesiveness, Wuthering Heights is likely to frustrate viewers and likewise keep them watching.  The payoff however may not ultimately be worth the time spent.

Those familiar with Emily Brontë’s only novel may bristle at Arnold’s alterations, but more problematic is Arnold’s decision to tell the story in natural lighting and ambient sound, eschewing any musical score whatsoever.  In many ways, the natural sound and absent music makes for a compelling viewing experience, certainly one you are more in tune with as you listen for creaks, pops, and howling wind and weather tones.  Shooting the film in natural light creates more trouble than success however, with actions, conversations, and movements lost in the night and dark.  Initially, since Arnold and collaborator Olivia Hetreed opt to tell the story from Heathcliff’s perspective, the confusion and unconventional visuals play into the narrative.  Over time and once we adjust, the approach never gets easier and it soon becomes difficult to not become frustrated with the notion that you may be missing something important.

Sparing dialogue for looks, posturing, and intensity, Wuthering Heights misses the small punctuations that assist emotional stories moving forward.  Instead, we have Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan implementing shaky, handheld camera movement and the aforementioned distressed lighting and darkness.  My sense is that this is obviously a metaphor for the emotional elements present in the story, but the entire process becomes maddening at times.  The Earnshaw farm is also essentially an island surrounded by mud, as far as the eye can see, and the unrelenting rain only bogs and constricts these people more and more.  A conundrum clearly develops here, as the natural sounds present an interesting sonic landscape, distinctive and pure, but the natural lighting also lend to a visual restriction of our emotional involvement in the characters stories.

The actors deliver good performances and the younger and older selections for Heathcliff and Catherine are good in their roles.  Arnold mixed her ensemble with experienced and first-time actors and since there is not much dialogue, many of the first-timers seem to equip themselves fine on screen.  The standouts here include Solomon Glave and James Howson as younger and older Heathcliff and Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario as younger and older Catherine, respectively.  Glave, Howson, and Beer all make their film debuts here while Scodelario has reached some fame internationally from her work on the controversial British television series “Skins.”  Her performance is strong, ushering in someone to keep an eye on moving forward.

At the end of the day, Wuthering Heights is not an easy film to like or dislike frankly.  It is far too easy to recognize Andrea Arnold’s ambition and engaging independence in making the films and telling the stories she wishes in her own distinctive way.  Clearly, she is drawn to telling female-oriented stories in original ways and she has received both high praise and scorn for reinventing Wuthering Heights from the male perspective. 

At final blush, when you add in the graphic scenes of animal cruelty, CGI or otherwise they are simply unpleasant, the brooding looks and stares in place of actual dialogue, and the difficulties in determining what is transpiring early on, Wuthering Heights lacks the sturdiness to be recommended.  What is good here works well, but there is simply too much movie to sort through to get there.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Those drawn to British novelized adaptations will be quite interested in seeing this latest incarnation of Wuthering Heights.
  • Andrea Arnold is starting to develop a devoted following with her challenging and hard to categorize films.  Her fans will be thrilled to have her back.
  • Those who love Emily Brontë’s novel will look to see how much or how little is utilized in telling the story.
NO
  • One of the chief complaints I have heard and might hear from people in the future is how the film is difficult to watch because of the natural lighting.  I agree that, at times, it is quite hard to figure out what is happening on screen, especially in the first half.
  • There is a staggering amount of animal-related violence which will alarm and repulse some viewers who are not ready for the unflinching imagery associated with those scenes.
  • The very definition of an arthouse movie, lots of people who think they are getting something more romantic, or traditional, will be thrown.  And likely not in a good way.
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