(Wuthering Heights is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and at Amazon Instant. It world premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. It’s distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and opened theatrically on Friday, October 5 at the Film Forum.)
Occasionally a period piece comes along that feels neither like the gauzy, ignorantly rendered, idealized versions of the past churned out by the Hollywood of yesteryear nor like the product of our grim and cynical and corporatist postmodern times, the maddening ideological manifestations of which are usually filtered through the perspective of some stooge director (see, uh, Marie Antoinette). I’m about to tell you about one such film.
As stark and unforgiving as her previous works, Andrea Arnold’s new film finds her pondering the aftermath of a mysterious, multi-pronged trauma for yet another soulful, alienated loner. That this shatteringly potent adaptation of Emily Bronte’s too often filmed 19th Century English Lit Classic Wuthering Heights is an absolute provocation has little do with that bit of auteurist observation however, even if the movie confirms Ms. Arnold to be one of the 21st Century’s most essential filmmakers.
Told in a style that is at turns terse and poetic, full of foggy grays and muddy browns and off blacks, her Wuthering Heights is like no other in the family lineage, a work that like most others focuses almost solely on the first half of the book, but which refuses to sentimentalize the situation at all, that broadens the scope of the lives’ lived, that renders the perhaps unconsummated love at its center as unsentimentally as possible and yet still finds a way to let the unfolding tragedy break your heart right along with Catherine’s.
Arnold keeps the camera at eye level, grounded with the two remarkable actors (James Howson as the older Heathcliff and Solomon Glave as his younger counterpart) who ultimately unify Heathcliff a bit better than Arnold’s pair of Catherine’s, Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario, manage to do. The fact that the younger Catherine doesn’t look much like the older Catherine doesn’t help, but its perhaps this otherwise wonderful movie’s sole lapse. The immaculate physical detail (one can just feels the dirt and grime in the production design and the clothing) and temporal/textural artistry on display more than make up for it.
As an adolescent and as a grown man we grow incredibly intimate with Heathcliff, Arnold dispatching the novel’s third person omniscient for a much a point of view that self-evidently favors him as the protagonist, a frequent victim of racial malice. That’s right – this is the first Bronte adaptation to make Heathcliff, described by Bronte on the novel’s third page as “a rather dark skinned gypsy” with “an erect and handsome figure, and rather morose” into a full fledged Angry Black Man.
Seemingly stripped of ideological intent, the movie negotiates Heathcliff’s blackness matter of factly; it speaks multitudes, the way Heathcliff is treated, about the way people lived, what they believed and how society was organized in rural, early 19th century England. This was no country for black men, but the movie makes little fuss about that. Still, itt’s a remarkable choice, to cast a largely unknown black actor, especially when you consider that Michael Fassbinder, who Arnold garnered such a triumphant performance from in Fish Tank, was once considered for the role. But Arnold, unlike nearly every other director who has ever tackled this material, choose to stay truthful to Bronte’s vision in this work of rough hewn, poetic fatalism.