In late 18th century England, Yorkshire hill farmer Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) on a visit to Liverpool finds a homeless boy on the streets. He takes him home to live as part of his family at Wuthering Heights on the isolated Yorkshire moors and names him Heathcliff (Solomon Glave, James Howson). In due course, Earnshaw's son Hindley (Lee Shaw) grows bitterly jealous of Heathcliff - who forges an obsessive relationship with the farmer's daughter, Cathy (Shannon Beer, Kaya Scodelario). Following Mr. Earnshaw's death, Hindley rejects Heathcliff as family and makes him a servant. After a misundertsanding, Heathcliff runs away believing Cathy has betrayed him, but returns three years later a changed - and more polished - man. It sets in train a chain of tragic events.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's instructive to read Andrea Arnold's comments on making her film in the briefing notes: "It's gothic, feminist, socialist, sadomasochistic, Freudian, incestuous, violent and visceral. Trying to melt all that together into a film is an ambitious and perhaps foolish task. Any attempt will never do the book justice. But it was like I had no choice. Once the idea was in my head I could not put it down. Even when things became very difficult I couldn't let it go."
In a nutshell her words reflect what she was trying to tease out from the underlying work (all the emotionally charged elements she lists) as well as the self indulgence that audiences discover in the way she tries to achieve her ends. She is right on all counts: it's a foolish task to approach this work with such a cemented agenda and it's foolish to persist with it when evidently it doesn't work.
I think it falls down because she can't articulate WHY she wanted to make it into a film, and WHAT she wanted to say - not only is this missing in her notes, it's missing in the film. The notes refer to the drive for authenticity in replicating the period and the characters; but that's not a motive for making such a film.
The reason I am drawing on these notes so much is because I am searching for what she wanted to achieve as a yardstick for reviewing the film. It doesn't work for me and Andrea Arnold is a celebrated filmmaker; what went wrong?
Perhaps it's as simple as she says: she couldn't put the idea away. Perhaps it's as simple as she doesn't tell the story well. For me the film is misguided and misjudged. The first half is especially dull, made so by the composite of creative decisions ranging from tight, hand held camerawork that makes it impossible to discern the image - which is in a constrained 4x3 aspect ratio, adding to the stylistic decision to frame everything in tight close up. This claustrophobic attack is countered by endless cutaways of the windswept moors, thistles, birds, bugs, leafless trees, meadows, gorges, hills and mud.
The dialogue - of which there is little - is recorded in purist Dogme style it seems, against background noise and with heavy Yorkshire accents to make it almost impenetrable. There is no underscore (that's not a criticism) but the sound design is user unfriendly.
The impression we get is that the film is driven by attention seeking: 'look what a dramatic image this is' or 'look how we can disturb your expectation' - without considering the audience. The worst things a filmmaker can be accused of is making a boring film, or a film that takes the audience for a fool - or a film that ignores the cinematic needs of the audience. Arnold's Wuthering Heights seems to do all of these.
Review by Louise Keller:
The windy moors of Yorkshire have never seemed as bleak as in Andrea Arnold's depiction of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. With only the howling wind, the pelting rain, the squish of the mud and the sounds of nature to accompany the narrative, Arnold is quick to set the tone, albeit it is these sounds that dominate, rather than the dialogue of Bronte's prose. While tragedy displays her shadowy form throughout the tale that begins when an orphan boy is brought home to the moors by a man who says it is the Christian thing to do, zero emotional impact results. Physical and mental abuse perpetuates throughout the two hours plus of the film's running time with little reward and Bronte enthusiasts will despair.
Racial discrimination, rather than that of class is the key factor in Arnold's story, with Heathcliff portrayed as black of African descent. The film begins with the adult, distraught Heathcliff (James Howson) banging his head against a wall, before we are transported in flashback to the austere evening, when as a youngster (Solomon Glave) he was first brought to the moors. It is only Cathy (Shannon Beer as the forthright teen) who makes Heathcliff's life tolerable. He is beaten and badly treated by everyone else - especially Cathy's older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw), whose jealousy is apparent from the outset. Heathcliff spends much of his time hiding behind corners from where he watches the rest of the world. His main participation lies in his activities with Cathy: riding on the moors, mucking about in the mud and doing simple things together.
There are birds fluttering overhead, dogs barking, beetles clacking and moths fluttering their wings. Such is the accent on the world around the characters, that events, actions and dialogue are often blurred as a result. It is after the half way mark, when tables are turned and Heathcliff returns to the moors as a successful gentleman, that the adult actors Howson and Kaya Scodelario take over from the younger, less experienced actors. The frustrations of the storytelling are endless however, and the dynamic between Heathcliff and Cathy is more credible as youngsters. The endless longing and hopelessness becomes tiresome.
Arnold's career began illustriously with an Oscar with for her 2005 short Wasp, followed by prestigious awards for her feature films Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), the latter winning the Cannes Jury Prize. Wuthering Heights is a study is despair and unlikely to win acclaim on any level.
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WUTHERING HEIGHTS (MA)
CAST: James Howson, Solomon Glave, Paul Hilton, Shannon Beer, Simone Jackson, Steve Evets, Eve Coverley, Lee Shaw, Amy Wren, Jonathan Powell
PRODUCER: Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader, Douglas Rae,
DIRECTOR: Andrea Arnold
SCRIPT: Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed (novel by Emily Bronte)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robbie Ryan
EDITOR: Nicolas Chaudergue
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Helen Scott
RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 11, 2012