The dark romantic undertow of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights and its story of the forbidden relationship between Cathy and wild man Heathcliff on the Yorkshire moors has drawn in many filmmakers over the years with perhaps the most famous interpretation being William Wyler’s 1939 version which starred Larry Olivier and Merle Oberon.
The latest adaptation, which comes from director Andrea Arnold, features no big names and reshapes the story as one of racial persecution as Heathcliff, now a black teenager (Solomon Glave), is taken in by the Earnshsaw family who occupy the windswept farmhouse called Wuthering Heights. As Heathcliff forms a growing and passionate relationship with Cathy Earnshaw (Shannon Beer), he’s increasingly abused by her repulsively racist Brother Hindley (Lee Shaw). Eventually cast out, Heathcliff vows revenge but his return as an adult has more destructive consequences than he could have imagined.
Much like Cate Shortland’s Lore this film opts for an impressionistic visual style with fragmented scenes of Heathcliff and Cathy’s forbidden liaisons as they tramp through the mud and commune with nature. This approach produces some startling and atmospheric scenes but it also makes the plot unnecessarily confusing and distances us emotionally from the characters. Also, excessive use of wobbly hand held camera shots may prove irritating for some people.
Reaction to this film will partly depend on people’s tolerance of its unrelentingly grim tone: everyone in the film is tense, miserable or sickly, it’s always raining and much of the film is spent wallowing in the mud. While this may not sound particularly enticing, Arnold succeeds in drawing out the novel’s harsh elemental feel and stripping away any pretence of frothy costume drama.
The first half of this film, which pivots on the fine performances from Glave and Beer, is definitely the strongest. The second half, in which Heathcliff returns as an adult, lacks mysterious feel of the earlier scenes and is not helped by a stilted performance from James Howson as Heathcliff.
This version of Wuthering Heights has much to offer as a visually sumptuous piece of filmmaking but as a human drama it does not engage us the way it should.
Nick’s rating: Three stars.
Classification: MA 15+
Director(s): Andrea Arnold
Release date: 11th Oct 2012
Running time: 129 mins.
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