Wuthering Heights: Venice Film Review

Wuthering Heights
Venice Film Festival
An audaciously and satisfyingly stark, direct and radical approach to an oft-filmed literary classic.

Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold’s radical version of the Brontë classic is refreshing different from past versions.

As refreshing as a dawn walk in winter on the Yorkshire moors, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights shows how 21st century cinema can — and should — go about boldly revitalizing even the most familiar literary properties. Emily Brontë’s oft-filmed, multi-generational 1847 tale of forbidden passions in rural northern England may deal with fictional events set 300 years in the past, but Arnold and her collaborators depict them with a vivid, urgent vibrancy that instantly and absorbingly erases the gap of centuries.

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That said, the film’s audacious unconventionality and a cast headed by a quartet of total unknowns make it, on paper at least, a tough commercial sell. But such is the enduring power of Wuthering Heights as a popular cultural phenomenon that, aided by what is likely to be very strong critical reactions and a healthy awards haul, there’s no reason why director/co-writer Arnold’s third feature shouldn’t prove an international arthouse success in the mold of her last effort, Fish Tank (2009).

This story is presented mainly from the perspective of the book’s Byronic anti-hero, Heathcliff, played here as a teenager by Solomon Glave, and as a twenty-something young man by James Howson. The action begins with Heathcliff’s arrival at the eponymous farmhouse somewhere in Yorkshire – the book specifies only that it’s 60 miles from Liverpool, where Heathcliff is rescued from the streets by Wuthering Heights’ owner, Mr Earnshaw (Paul Hilton). Heathcliff is treated as a member of the family, effectively a brother to Cathy (Shannon Beer) and Hindley (Lee Shaw), but when Earnshaw dies and Hindley becomes the farm’s “Master,” he’s reduced to the level of a despised servant. He continues, however, to be very close to Cathy. It’s strongly implied here that their bond becomes, if only fleetingly, a sexual one until circumstances force them apart, with tragic and drastic consequences for all.

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One of the themes of both book and film is the contrast between wildness and civilization – Heathcliff and Cathy’s happiest times are spent exploring the muddily picturesque moors – and Heathcliff always retains his close bond with nature and the earth. This is powerfully conveyed by Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan through the close attention they pay to the flora and fauna of this remote corner of Yorkshire. Ryan works with the same distinctively boxy Academy Ratio he used on Arnold’s Fish Tank, and achieves lustrous wonders with high-definition video as he works with a palette of loamy browns, cobalt blues and moss-damp greens.

Frequent shots of birds, beetles and nettles call to mind the natural-world scrutinizations of Terrence Malick, and may strike some viewers as unnecessarily repetitive. But overall they serve to fully immerse us in Wuthering Heights’ world of perpetual struggle, death and rebirth, providing a suitably intense background for the stormy human relationships that propel the story forward. Natural sounds of wind and rain are deployed in place of a musical score - and there’s certainly no shortage of weather here – “wuthering” is defined in the book as “atmospheric tumult.”

Performances are blunt and unmannered. Top-billed Kaya Scodelario plays the adult Cathy with only the occasional linguistic anachronism jarring on the ear. These minor flubs are outweighed by the impact of the plausibly unadorned, sometimes vicious language used by what are essentially uneducated working-class farmers. This includes several four-letter outbursts and a smattering of uses (by Hindley) of the N-word towards Heathcliff – Glave and Howson are both black, a pioneering bit of casting from Arnold. Heathcliff is described in the book as “dark”, “gipsy” and looking like a “Lascar” from southern Asia, but has always been previously played by Caucasians.

Wuthering Heights has exerted such a strong fascination on the public for so long. It was highly popular, for example, among the Surrealists, and Luis Buñuel even came up with his own Mexican version in 1954, while nouvelle vague pioneer Jacques Rivette delivered his take with Hurlevent in 1985.

Neither is classed among those giants’ finest work, but Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is her most successful and satisfying feature to date. Indeed, so audaciously cutting-edge does it feel – which could perhaps draw comparisons with France’s reigning female auteur Claire Denis, and even Catalan experimentalist Albert Serra – that it suddenly makes Cary Fukunaga’s current (Charlotte) Brontë adaptation, the solidly respectable Jane Eyre, look almost as old-fashioned as Robert Stevenson’s 1943 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.

Arnold’s only real misstep is the inclusion of a newly-commissioned, unmistakably modern sounding song by popular British neo-folk band Mumford & Sons during the final moments and over the closing credits. What Arnold doesn’t include, however, is the second half of the book. Like almost all screen adaptations, the action ends shortly after Cathy’s death.

Those who come to the Brontë after seeing the films are usually amazed to find Cathy expiring on page 193 of a 390-page text with a whole other generation of romantic entanglement and misadventure to come. Then again,if this movie obtains the success it deserves, perhaps Arnold, Ryan and company might be persuaded to return for a Wuthering Heights, Part II.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: Ecosse Films, Film 4
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer, Nichola Burley
Director: Andrea Arnold
Screenwriters: Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed
Producers: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae, Kevin Loader
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Mark Woolley, Tim Haslam, Hugo Heppell, Adam Kulick
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Helen Scott
Editors: Nicolas Chaudeurge
Sales: HanWay Films
No rating, 129 minutes