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Wuthering Heights

October 13, 2012

Has there ever been a really great adaptation of Emily Brontë’s infamous novel? We’ve seen various attempts over the years, each adding their own inflection to the basic story, but falling short. The 1939 version comes closest despite — like most — omitting the second generation’s story, but it comes from a more classical acting tradition that ends up feeling more Shakespearean than gothic. Unfortunately Andrea Arnold’s attempt at Wuthering Heights is not the version to outdo William Wyler’s. Visually impressive and stripped-down to approach a more modern style, the filmmakers strip out the story as well, leaving a gorgeous, hollow shell.

The story is familiar: Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) finds a boy (Solomon Glave) living on the streets of Liverpool and brings him home to his farm, naming him Heathcliff. We see the young man’s relationship with the Earnshaws develop: his animosity with Hindley (Lee Shaw) and his affection for Catherine (Shannon Beer). After Mr. Earnshaw’s death, Hindley treats Heathcliff more cruelly, while the love between Heathcliff and Cathy grows into a nascent sexuality marked, in this environment, by strong overtones of power and dominance.

Heathcliff is eventually driven off, only to return some years later (as James Howson). Hindley has squandered what little fortune the Earnshaw family had amassed, and Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) has married the rich neighbor, Edgar Linton (James Northcote), whose sister, Isabella (Nichola Burley), remembers Heathcliff fondly.

Arnold and Olivia Hetreed’s script goes very light on the dialogue, leaving much communication up to the imagery. Sometimes this works — Glave shows a real knack for body language, for instance — but most of the time it falls short. Arnold shows a thistle, once blooming, once withered, and leaves it to us to draw the implication of this symbolism, which is one of the easier cases. Harder are the obligatory shots of tree branches tapping on the window; if you do not already know what this means to Heathcliff I cannot see how it could possibly be inferred from this adaptation.

Everything is shot with hand-held cameras, and cinematographer Robbie Ryan helps capture the permanent foggy November of the bleak, scrubby Yorkshire Dales, whether it’s an accurate image or not. There are many intimate close-ups, and focus shifts artistically from one depth to another and back. The landscapes are as gorgeous in the wide angle as the foliage is in the narrow, but the story is as emotionally barren as the fields.

Not only is much explanation missing, much of the acting is flat and dull. When it picks up, it’s incredibly overwrought, though that appearance may be due in part to the seismic shaking of the camera whenever the tone goes above laconic.

The overall impression is that of some frigid person who believes that decorating each room just so down to the finest considered detail will somehow make a house into a home regardless of what goes on inside. Unfortunately, all the gorgeous still-lifes of half-eaten crabapples in the world do not add up to sufficient shorthand to convey a real emotional experience.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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