Going into this I was unaware exactly of the story of “Wuthering Heights” having never read Emily Bronte’s literary classic nor seen any previous cinematic adaptations of it, so I cannot tell whether Andrea Arnold’s recent adaptation of the story is true to the book or not. I do know that the casting of a black actor to portray the main character of Heathcliff caused quite a stir when it was announced but how much this decision actually changes certain aspects of the story I do not know. I assume dynamics have to change but in regards to the film, the fact that Heathcliff is black is only really explored in the first half of the film when Heathcliff and Cathy are kids.
The film begins when Mr. Earnshaw comes across a young abandoned slave on the streets of London. Believing it is the Christian thing to do, he brings the boy home with him with the intention of bringing him up like his own son. Immediately Heathcliff (the slave in question) makes a connection with Mr. Earnshaw’s young daughter Cathy, but it is a completely different matter with his son, Hindley, who resents Heathcliff being there. One day after he racially victimizes Heathcliff, Hindley is sent away by his father to be educated, much to the delight of Heathcliff, but after tragedy strikes and Mr. Earnshaw suddenly dies, it brings the return of Hindley, but this time as the man of the house. The love and care that Heathcliff felt under Mr. Earnshaw is replaced by hate and intolerance with Hindley in charge who starts by evicting Heathcliff from the house and making him live and sleep with the animals in the barn, treating the boy like a slave. Through all this, though, the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff doesn’t change, in fact it gets stronger, until one day when the two kids are playing, they come across the house of the Linton’s. Cathy eventually starts dating one of the boys, Edgar, from the Linton house, and when he asks for her hand in marriage, she accepts. Heathcliff is devastated by her decision and runs away.
The film then cuts to about ten years later as we see Heathcliff, now a grown man, returning to the house he grew up in with Cathy. It is obvious in his time absent, he has done very well for himself, but something was missing. His reason for returning to the house was to see Cathy once more, however the love that they share for one another is a dangerous and all encompassing one that can only lead to doom for them both.
For the most part, I enjoyed Andrea Arnold’s minimalist adaptation of “Wuthering Heights”. I describe the film as minimalist because nothing is overdone here, dialogue is sparse, there is no big orchestral score (nor any score for that matter) playing over the images, costumes are not overly flamboyant, it is just the story told as economically as possible, focusing primarily on the emotions.
The landscape of the film is incredibly important and this is a film that is rooted and connected to nature. Arnold often starts scenes or cuts away to images of insects or small animals that inhabit the area. The feeling of place is very well represented too as you can feel how damp and cold (and depressing) the moors are, while in contrast when we travel to the Linton house, you can feel the money, warmth and social power associated with it. The two houses are contrasting worlds which is vital to get across for the story.
Although the film recently won the best cinematography award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, I did have a few problems with it, especially during the night scenes. I am assuming that it was filmed with available light, and thus candle-light may have been used for the night scenes for authenticity, but there were times when the images were just too dark to the point that you couldn’t exactly determine what was taking place. The daytime scenes, however, were gorgeous and this is where Robbie Ryan’s cinematography shines, and I particularly liked his framing within the 1:33 Academy ratio. The confines of the ratio seem to represent the confines of a repressed society very well indeed.
The main problem I had with the film was some suspect acting, particularly from both actors portraying Heathcliff. James Howson, who played the “adult” Heathcliff, is particularly poor and really took away from a powerful ending. The other thing that annoyed my was that the adult actors portraying Cathy and Heathcliff bore little resemblance to their younger counterparts, making it very hard to believe that the children in the beginning would grow anything like the people at the end of the film.
Overall, I enjoyed Andrea Arnold’s bare bones adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” (although I was shocked to learn that the title is actually the name of the Earnshaw’s house, which is never once mentioned in the film) with a few reservations. I think some better casting choices should have been made, but for the most part, the emotion and tragedy still shines through.