A muddy mess of a classic tale
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, October 12, 2012
Yet another adaptation of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” emerges from the blustery moors of England. Like so many that came before, director Andrea Arnold’s take on the novel zeroes in on just one portion of the story, the star-crossed romance of Cathy and Heathcliff. Her approach to the material is fresh, considering her focus on the messy, muddy landscape as a metaphor for the story’s unbridled relationships. But with so much attention paid to mood and imagery, emotions seem to get lost in the wind.
As the film opens, a grown Heathcliff (James Howson) suffers through a moment of despair. He throws himself against a wall, wailing, and hits his head on the floor. A bare tree branch scratches menacingly at the window. The camera focuses and blurs. Without a word, the film announces its disquieting intentions before jumping back in time to the moment when Heathcliff first meets the Earnshaw family.
As an orphaned boy, Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw, but one could hardly call it a rescue. Beaten and bullied by his adoptive brother, Hindley (Lee Shaw), Heathcliff develops a complete dependence on Mr. Earnshaw’s daughter, the impetuous Cathy (Shannon Beer). In a slight twist, Heathcliff is black (played as a boy by Solomon Glave), but this doesn’t seem to affect the plot in major ways except to allow the despicable Hindley to unleash occasional racial slurs.
Heathcliff and Cathy build their almost wordless relationship on windswept frolics and mud fights. Living in such a remote area, the potential for other companionship is low, so the pair become inseparable best friends. But things change drastically when Mr. Earnshaw dies suddenly and Hindley takes charge of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff becomes less a family member than a servant, and Hindley ups the abuse. As Heathcliff’s stock sinks, Cathy’s rises once she becomes acquainted with a rich neighboring family. Yet things get only bleaker for both characters.
Speaking of dreary, Wuthering Heights seems to be the land that the sun forgot. The two-plus hours spent watching the film could be enough to spur a bout of seasonal affective disorder. It’s part of Arnold’s exacting sense of atmosphere, and the oppressive cloudiness works, considering the subject. But there is an inordinate amount of time spent staring at the austere scenery. Every establishing shot either captures a gray panorama or zooms in on some element of flora or fauna, with an emphasis on insect close-ups. What initially sparks a viewer reaction -- creepy, crawly beetles, for example -- loses its impact after so many repeats.
In another attempt to set the mood, many of the camera shots are dark and shadowy. Yet in many cases, the lighting is so dim, it becomes nearly impossible to discern what’s happening on-screen, which tends to alienate viewers rather than pull them in. One could make an argument that this is all part of a generally unsettling and unpredictable feeling that Arnold intentionally builds, but other disturbing images already abound. After a particularly brutal whipping, Cathy lifts Heathcliff’s shirt and licks his wounds, while in another scene, Heathcliff slaughters a lamb. Later, he inexplicably hangs a dog on a fence by its collar.
All of these elements spell out the unhealthy nature of the doomed relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff, yet, for all the painstakingly arranged visuals, it’s hard to understand the draw between the characters. They barely speak to each other, and even before Hindley’s terrible rule begins, the pair’s friendship appears totally joyless.
It’s as if Arnold took this impassioned tale and injected it with Botox. Where are the emotions? With the exception of the opening scene, the rare occasions when characters express feelings -- screaming or crying -- ring curiously hollow. Maybe that’s because there are so few highs. When a story lacks any moment of bliss, the despair doesn’t seem so desperate.
Contains violence, language, brief nudity, sexual situations and disturbing images of animal abuse.