Oct 05 2012
Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
Emily Brontë’s book Wuthering Heights is considered a classic of English literature and has been adapted dozens of times for movies, TV, theater, and even opera. However, I’ve never seen any of those, nor was I forced to read the book in school, and since I’m not a fan of the many stories about old-timey British people who can’t express their feelings, Wuthering Heights was going to be one of those classics I just wasn’t going to get around to. But Oscar-winner Andrea Arnold’s gorgeous version of Brontë’s story may be the most visceral adaptation of a literary work I’ve ever seen, stripping away dialogue to reveal raw emotions in a way that made me understand why Wuthering Heights has endured for so long.
Like many previous adaptations, Arnold’s film looks at the first half of the book and the growth of a dark-skinned street orphan named Heathcliff (played as a child by Solomon Glave). Heathcliff is adopted by Mr. Earnshaw (played by Paul Hilton) and taken to a farm named Wuthering Heights on England’s windy moors. There, Heathcliff meets Earnshaw’s asshole of an older son, Hindley (played by Lee Shaw), and Earnshaw’s much sweeter daughter, Catherine (played as a child by Shannon Beer), who quickly becomes Heathcliff’s inseparable pal and love. But after spending time with the wealthy Linton family who live a few miles away, Catherine decides that Heathcliff’s lack of money and education make him an unsuitable husband and that she should marry into the Linton family, causing Heathcliff to run away in anguish.
A few years later, a now-affluent Heathcliff returns (now played by James Howson) and finds Catherine (played by Kaya Scodelario) married to Edgar Linton (played by James Northcote) and living at swanky Linton manor. Unable to woo Catherine back and still hurt by her decision to choose money over love, Heathcliff decides to get his revenge by lashing out at Catherine, the Lintons, and the Earnshaws.
While the film is faithful to the time period the book is set in, this is definitely no stuffy British costume period piece. The Earnshaws are living a fairly dirty, hardscrabble life out on the moors, enduring the epitome of England’s famously awful weather. And despite the strange decision to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the cinematography is stunning, intimate, and urgent, and is a rare example of the effective use of handheld shaky-cam to convey and bolster mood and emotion.
And instead of a lot of speeches and pronouncements, the dialogue in Wuthering Heights seems to be largely stripped away and sounds fairly modern when you can decipher the sometimes thick accents. But to be honest, the emotions of the characters are captured so strikingly that the movie could be in a foreign language with no subtitles and you’d still understand everything going on, with the wildness of the weather and landscape as the perfect analogy for the turbulent emotions buffeting the star-crossed couple.
And because I could feel the characters’ emotions instead of having them explained to me, I was able to see why Wuthering Heights is a universal, timeless story. Watching the movie, it was easy to imagine it being adapted to a modern day inner city, the suburbs, the old west, or any culture or time when class, race, education, prejudice, and obsession could get in the way of young love. While a lot has changed since Wuthering Heights was published more than one hundred and fifty years ago, the lines between classes and races are still bright. And Arnold’s visceral adaptation of Brontë’s book brings those millennia-old divisions into the modern world, all without leaving the moors.
Wuthering Heights is unrated and opens today in limited release.