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Wuthering Heights: A Puzzling and Challenging Version of a Classic

December 17th 2012

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights. Director: Andrea Arnold. Starring: James Howson, Solomon Klave, Kaya Scodelario, Shannon Bear, Lee Shaw. Length: 129 mins.

Wuthering Heights is Emily Bronte’s 19th century literary classic. There have been a number of versions, especially the romantic doom and gloom of William Wyler’s 1939 version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. In a cinematic sense, Olivier with his theatrical delivery became the visual equivalent of the Bronte prose and Merle Oberon’s classic beauty was that of Catherine Earnshaw. The Internet Movie Database lists 15 version since 1920. Luis Buñuel made a version in Spanish (Abismos de Passion). Keith Michel and Claire Bloom in 1962 and Ian McShane was Heathcliff on television in 1967. Anna Calder Marshall teamed with Timothy Dalton (also a smouldering theatrical presence) in 1970. In the 1990s, Ralph Fiennes was Heathcliff to Juliet Binoche’s Catherine. Tom Hardy, who has proven himself a strong and versatile actor, was Heathcliff in a British television in 2009 with Charlotte Riley.

Audiences expecting a continuation of that kind of classic cinema should not venture into this much more experimental interpretation unless they want to see something quite different and to be challenged. Andrea Arnold made her mark with awards for her contemporary domestic dramas, Red Road and Fish Tank. Now she takes her visual style back into the 19th century and the Yorkshire moors and dales.

A gathering in the dark. Dim hallway. A face. Sky vista. A half-framed picture of two riders. Quivering camera.

This is the technique that Andrea Arnold brings to this 129 minute version of Wuthering Heights. It is both intimate and sometimes off kilter. It is dark. It is grubby. It is episodic. Characters are sometimes glimpsed, then contemplated in close-up. The first part of the film, centred on the dingy Earnshaw farm, has little relief. The second part of the film with much more attention given to the Linton mansion is much more sunny (at times), even with blue skies, the interiors, with some red walls, far more colourful than we had become accustomed to.

The director and her director of photography are attempting an interpretation of the novel via the visual style rather than literary style, although the screenplay offers much of Emily Bronte’s words. It is a disruptive style, at times upsetting, at times puzzling with its idiosyncratic handheld camera work that avoids finesse or neatness. And there are several jolts as characters use expletives that Emily Bronte may not have even known.

This is the context for unsettling characters. Hindley Earnshaw is a brute. His foreman, Joseph, has moments of cruelty. The rest of the family are there, often in the dark, not particularly delineated. Except for Cathy, in her teens, a wild, impetuous young woman. Into this household comes a black slave, bought in charity in Liverpool, to be brought into this Yorkshire life and to become a Christian, Heathcliff. Already this is a jolt for purists, but one of the most interesting features of the film. At first, Cathy spits at him. But, soon, they are kindred spirits, escaping to the top of the heights, riding over the moors. Heathcliff becomes the centre of the film. His plight holds the interest and the emotions.

When Cathy goes to the Linton home and finds herself at home in this different environment, Heathcliff leaves. He disappears for some years.

When he returns, there is different casting for both Heathcliff and Cathy. The continuity between Solomon Glave as the young Heathcliff (offbeat and memorable) and James Howson as the older and more sophisticated Heathcliff is well sustained. This means that Heathcliff’s made passion and revenge and his cruel marriage to Isabella more credible. However, the younger Cathy (Shannon Bear) is what can be called a buxom country lass, full of verve, even of song, impetuous, contradictory, at home at the Earnshaw farm rather than at the Linton’s. However, the older Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) is glamorous and svelte (despite her attempts at a rough accent). Many audiences will find it hard to accept this transformation. Which undermines the drama and Cathy’s responses to Heathcliff.

Edgar Linton is what was once called ‘a wet and a weed). Isabella is hard done by. Nelly Dean must have been there earlier but emerges more significantly when Heathcliff returns. It is Lee Shaw as Hindley who is the most consistent character.

Doubtless there will be more versions of Wuthering Heights. This is the more puzzling and challenging one.

Peter Malone writes for Signis, from where this article is adapted.

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