Like most other filmmakers who’ve adapted Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold eschews the uncinematic framing device of the novel as well as the latter half of its narrative, choosing to focus instead on the torturous, unconsummated relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff which makes up the first part. Arnold’s is very much a film of two halves; charting Heathcliff’s arrival at Thrushcross Grange as an orphaned child and his disappearance and return as a young adult some years later, casting two sets of actors to portray the characters at both stages of their lives. For the first hour or so, the film represents pretty much everything one could have hoped from the director of Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009); shooting in the Academy ratio, the film is a marvel of sensory textures, a hand stroking a horse or a sheepskin rug, a feather drawn across a cheek, Arnold focusses on the tactility of details both human and natural to bring the 19th Century Yorkshire moors to vivid life.
Her decision to cast black actors James Howson and Solomon Glave as Heathcliff also proves a shrewd move, recontextualising his and Cathy’s relationship in a manner closer to Brontë’s description of a “dark-skinned gypsy” than any previous adaptation. Arnold pushes the masochistic tendencies of the characters to the forefront, even if Cathy does get off somewhat lightly at first, with most of Heathcliff’s punishment dealt physically rather than psychologically at the hands of Joseph (Steve Evets) and Hindley (Lee Shaw), always ready with his cane and a racial slur. If she’s later portrayed as something of a vampire, sucking blood from her own arm, it’s an idea better suggested in the loaded image of her licking Heathcliff’s wounds after a particularly nasty beating from Joseph, unnecessarily repeated later. This repetition, which occurs not just in this instance but in others more obviously as the film progresses into its second half, also utilising flashbacks to insistently reinforce both emotion and visual motifs, quickly becomes frustrating, I’m not sure we need to see quite so many animals ensnared in traps for a point to be made.
Robbie Ryan’s stunning photography begins to suffer equally as a result of the recurrence of certain images. Whilst initially in awe of the way he captures nature, emphasizing the blues and greens of both the landscape and the interiors (the bedroom floor especially), they begin to lose their potency an hour and a half and thirty two thistles in. Whilst comparable to Néstor Almendros’ work for Terrence Malick in its use of natural light, Ryan highlights as keenly the grim reality of the moors as much as the beauty, ferocious storms and slaughtered animals alongside frozen vistas and sun-kissed grass, the people connected to and reliant on the earth, a place where they’re born, conceived and buried.
Perhaps the film’s biggest problem however, lies in performance. Both Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, with whom we spend the first half are nothing short of exceptional; their testing, almost wordless relationship builds beautifully through stolen glances and frustrated tussles, a bloody mud-wrestle loaded with pre-sexual tension. It’s only when Heathcliff disappears onto the moors to return as an older James Howson that Wuthering Heights begins to show a more conventional, dialogue-driven hand, in which Howson struggles to find the emotional weight behind the resentful, taciturn figure. More becomes dependent on literalisation and verbalisation of the characters’ inner turmoil, with motivation and expression becoming much more explicit. It’s a frustrating experience after the ambiguity and nuance of the first half, more reliant on imagery and action to sell its inner world of repressed feeling than the latter. More than anything, it lacks genuine feeling and passion, something consistently bubbling away under the surface of the opening hour which seemed to simply deflate as the film progressed, the ending sadly failing to move in any truthful sense, resorting to flashbacks and a single misguided use of non-diegetic music at its close for effect.
Arnold has made a stunning film for the first seventy minutes, delivering perhaps her best work yet, it’s just a shame that the great ideas with which Wuthering Heights begins ultimately seem to be stretched quite so thinly come the close. In its entirety, it’s still a strong film, just frustratingly not the knockout promised by its first half.
Wuthering Heights – 2011 – United Kingdom – 128 mins – Dir : Andrea Arnold
Wuthering Heights plays at the London Film Festival on 22nd & 25th October and goes on general release on November 11th.