Wuthering Heights - SideReel Review
With Wuthering Heights, British writer/director Andrea Arnold attempts to give Emily Brontë’s seminal 1847 novel a fresh spin. In lieu of bringing Heathcliff and Cathy into contemporary times as one might nominally expect from this intention, Arnold preserves the period setting but captures the action in an unusual style -- with a noticeable absence of artificial light, copious usage of handheld camerawork, and occasional first-person shots taken from Heathcliff’s perspective. This was a wise decision, arguably a masterstroke. Within Arnold’s stylistic framework, the characters, the rugged moors beneath imposing skies, and the age-hewn interiors from Brontë’s prose assume a raw quality that feels as if a direct documentarian was present in the 19th century, merely observing the events sans interference. On some vital, organic level, this works; we never for a moment sense what Pauline Kael once called "the technicians hiding behind the butterfly’s wing and trying to make it iridescent."
What doesn’t pay off is Arnold’s narrative looseness -- the plot structure feels sloppy and careless. Some major developments are glossed over -- such as the death of Cathy’s dad, which we don’t learn about until the coffin is being lowered into the ground -- and others are eliminated altogether: We never discover, for example, what befalls Heathcliff in between the time when he leaves the Earnshaw home and when he returns as a wealthy man who intends to make Cathy his bride. These omissions cripple the movie’s dramatic power, and it suffers equally from a conspicuous lack of romantic chemistry between the younger versions of Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Cathy (Shannon Beer). One thinks back to other films that have made prepubescent or early teenage yearning emotionally tangible -- such as the magisterial flashbacks, for instance, in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita. The picture desperately needs an equivalent level of passion, but it never materializes.
Overall, the film constitutes an interesting attempt to strip the Brontë novel of its iconic topsoil and cut back to the thematic roots of the story; one can admire the sublimity of Arnold’s aesthetic compositions and framing, as well as the generally solid acting from a nonprofessional cast, but that’s to no avail when the movie misses its emotional targets. Viewers interested in this story would be strongly advised to seek out the 1939 adaptation starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, which remains unsurpassed on the levels of performance and execution.