Look on Tempests but Be Never Shaken
It is risky to reimagine classic cinema, and Buñuel, Rivette, Yoshida, MTV and others have tried but failed to match Olivier’s charisma and Oberon’s passion. As to classic literature, even risk-taking director/co-writer Andrea Arnold admits to “never liking the idea of adaptations” but that, this first and last time, “it was as though I had no choice once the idea [of Wuthering Heights] was in my head.”
Citing the multiple facets of the novel, the Englishwoman sees a screen version as “an ambitious and foolish task.” How correct her assessment is depends on how familiar one may be with the 1847 source and/or how much one accepts the screen loss of the print narrator-character within another narrator-character’s subjective, limited (because devoid of gothic passion and imagination) point of view.
The movie versions do not attempt to cover late eighteenth-early nineteenth century social constraints. Nor do they go the whole second generation-plus in the convoluted relationships, deliberately difficult in Emily Brontë’s anticipation of Faulknerian doubling of Christian names.
Arnold and Olivia Hetreed’s script and Robbie Ryan’s 2011 Venice prize-winning on-location photography omit the supernatural to concentrate on elemental and irresistible passion as outwardly figured in North Yorkshire nature: the moors, lowering sky and rainstorms, mud, rock outcrops (contrasted with rock fences), wheeling birds (contrasted with window-trapped moths), slaughtered rabbits and warm farm animals, symbolically white and black riding horses, barking dogs and whining wind (which replaces music track).
Most adventurous, this newest WH is from the viewpoint of one of literature’s most cruel characters, paradoxically also among its towering Romantic heroes. He says little, but acts speak worlds as he becomes the viewer’s surrogate despite the horror of those acts. The tale is through his eyes, over his shoulder, while his sidelit face peeps around corners or through doorways, windows or slits.
This outsider, Heathcliff, is here a black among the pale-skinned of the north. Bold but not implausible, for the begrimed maybe Liverpool Gypsy urchin that Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) brings back to the Heights is derided as a “little lascar” or the fruit of an Indian princess by a Chinese emperor, and the cause is his visible -- and insulted, discriminated against -- exterior. Through the story years, says Arnold, “it is a woman’s point of view [because] I think Heathcliff is really Emily.”
Except for nasty farmhand Joseph (Steve Evets) and the two Earnshaw children, others ignore or barely tolerate the boy. Surly jealous son Hindley (Lee Shaw) abuses him at every opportunity. Already sensuous in her naturalness, daughter Cathy (Shannon Beer) embraces him in her romps through the rolling-hills heather. Hindley returns from college with short-lived wife Frances (Amy Wren), assumes ownership on the parents’ deaths, and treats his adoptive brother as an abject menial.
Untamed, unspoken and unconsummated, love surges between the adolescents, inseparable until a mishap leaves her convalescing at cultured Linton family Thrushcross Grange. Fascinated by refinement there, she opens to young, slender, blond Edgar and Isabella (Jonathan Powell, Eve Coverley).
Her former companion is now the jealous one and, overhearing that Cathy has accepted Edgar’s proposal because marrying Heathcliff would be degrading, he disappears. Because the film POV is that of immediately fled Heathcliff, it and the audience cannot know that Cathy at once adds that the Linton money will help her and him remain forever together like “the eternal rocks, my own being; I am Heathcliff.”
“A man? If so, mad; if not, a devil,” filled-out Heathcliff (James Howson, like most all the principal players, in his acting début) returns three years later to reclaim the now-pregnant Mrs. Catherine Linton (Kaya Scodelario) or, failing that, extract the darkest of emotional revenge on all concerned. His viewpoint is abandoned during his absence, so it is unclear how he got to be educated, well-dressed and well-off. That vengeance redounds on its perpetrator now explains the opening scene, which is rounded in end-repetition.
The film focusing on Heathcliff, and through and with him on Cathy, the novel’s ironic framing in conventional snooper Lockwood’s diary around housekeeper Ellen “Nelly” Dean’s (Simone Jackson) tale-bearing, is sacrificed. The vision remains the dark hero’s as interpreted by the filmmaker. The doomed amour is beyond words or images, best left to the imagination of each reader of the printed pages. Taciturn, brooding and using nature to suggest what is inexpressible, this brave take is an interesting look at a classic for the few, but may be too “inner” concentrated for the many.
(Released by Oscilloscope Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)