In following up the wonderful Fish Tank Andrea Arnold turns her attention towards Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a classic of British literature and a mammoth task if ever there was one. The source of numerous existing film adaptations on both the big screen and the small, most notably by William Wyler and Laurence Olivier in the 1930’s, and more recently with Tom Hardy and Andrew Lincoln in a two-parter for British TV, the story of Heathcliff and Cathy is one ground in the very roots of our national culture.
But alas, a confession. In terms of familiarity with the source material I am about as close to ignorant as one could possibly be. I knew of the characters of Cathy and Heathcliff in name alone, and was aware that Arnold had taken some bold liberties with the source material, but aside from the Kate Bush concept song and some severely repressed memories of a Cliff Richard musical based upon the story I went in to this adaptation embarrassingly blind. While my familiarity with the source material may leave a lot to be desired, the opposite is most certainly true of my understanding and relationship with the geographical locations used in the novel (and subsequent film). Growing up in Brontë Country, the rich landscapes that inspired the film remain keen memories to someone who spent their formative years in the wilds of the West Yorkshire moors. Indeed, my own father was actually born in the same village as the Brontë’s, and my family remain in the borough.
This adaptation of Wuthering Heights is heavily directed towards the character of Heathcliff, with its portrayal of the classic figure of tortured romanticism presented in an almost biblical manner, with it difficult not to associate his presence within the God-fearing landowners with that of a devil within the works. That his obsession destroys not only himself, but also those around him encourages such a reading. The character of Cathy played here by Shannon Beer in her earliest iteration and Kaya Scodelario as an adult, is somewhat placed in the background, which in turn adds to the unattainable predicament faced by Heathcliff. Heathcliff is also portrayed by a pair of actors, both, like Beer, unknowns. James Howson plays the older Heath, and Solomon Glave is the younger, and while both are fine the same unfortunately can’t be said for much of the supporting cast (also largely made up of unknowns. While there is a lot to be said about the hiring of non-professional actors, and indeed a filmmaker like Robert Bresson built around doing just that, it’s difficult to attune ones self to such a bold filmmaking decision. Sometimes it works, such as with arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, and the casting of Katie Jarvis, but here it falls flat and largely distracting more than anything.
Speaking of Bresson, it was his Lancelot du Lac that Arnold’s film most explicitly reminded of. The manner in which the venerable French filmmaker tackled the Arthurian legend, spinning it in to an existential murmuring, stripped of all of its grandeur and fallacy is reflected in Arnold’s stripped back approach to the source material. It’s an animalistic portrayal, with the wilds of the land, and the raw emotion of the figures interwinding and becoming one. They reflect each other, the sounds of whimpering dogs, wailing would be lovers and harsh rain melding in to one, lofty soundscape, and one sheer piece of noise wholly applicable to any visceral element presented. Non-diegetic sound is nowhere to be heard. Arnold’s use of the Academy Ratio, the director’s preferred canvas, is an inspired decision, itself reflective of the landscapes presented, inverting the vast spaces of the Yorkshire moors and presenting them as if they were being forcibly contained. The ratio intimicises the epic, forcing an almost alien perspective upon a 21st century audience. A similar device was utilised by Kelly Reichardt earlier this year, with her Western, the sublime Meek’s Cutoff presenting the iconic landscapes of the American frontier in a deliberately enclosed space, itself contradicting the vast spaces in front of the camera.
Arnold’s film is destined to be a divisive work. Quite how it will play to an average audience familiar with the beats and tropes of this particular sub genre, no doubt expecting a typical period drama (has any picture ever been as “safe”?) remains to be seen, but it is one well worth investing yourself in, if only for the rich visuals and in spite of some very temperamental performances. While not quite the masterpiece one might have expected from the director of Fish Tank, it’s an interesting film that stands shoulder to shoulder alongside its geographical contemporaries in what has been a great year for British cinema.