With the visual palate of a mud-stained grass paddock, and scored to the sounds of blustering gales across the British moors, striking adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights, from director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), makes for a brutal, bruising 129 minutes. Taking the Brontë prose and stripping it of nearly everything but the bare essentials, Arnold’s film – co-written by Arnold and Olivia Hetreed – is one of the most visually and aurally stunning films in years, yet its harsh, and somewhat revisionist, take on the famed material will keep audiences expecting classy period fare at arms length. Styled to within an inch of its life, Arnold’s film is a thing of beautiful, poetic sculptural grace, but beats with a viciously angry heart.
This film is the tale of the doomed love affair between Catherine Earnshaw and the young man known only as Heathcliffe. Foster children from an early age, the bond between these two is the stuff of tragedy on the page and it is a tragedy that Arnold helps manifest in her arresting visual sense. Portrayed so finely by the cast, Arnold has taken inspiration from several ambiguous notions within Brontë’s text and cast black actors as the younger and older versions of Heathcliffe. It’s a bold choice for sure, but one that sits comfortably within Arnold’s wheelhouse as a surprising, unflinching provocateur of the British lower class.
Shifting radically away from the present day council estate settings of her first two features – the urban terror of Red Road, and the crumbling yearning for escape of Fish Tank – Wuthering Heights still carries with it a very modern sensibility. Despite the lush hoop skirts and ruffled tops, there are no fancy excesses of the British period sub-genre to be found. Replaced instead by repetitive, if haunting and transfixing, images of wind-blown grasslands, tip-tapping tree branches against a bedroom window, lifeless gowns smattered with dirt, and disturbing animal cruelty. There’s no mistaking that the world of Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is not a charmingly romantic one, but a claustrophobic one that sees its characters more often than not merely hoping the walls don’t collapse in around them before the night is over.
Filmed in the traditional boxy “Academy” aspect ratio – think The Artist or Meek’s Cutoff of other recent exemplary examples of this technique – Arnold presents a vision where the terrain is just as tragic as the love. These two characters are not only forbidden by circumstance, but it’s almost as if the land itself is trying to keep them apart. It’s interesting to note that cinematographer Robbie Ryan repeatedly films the landscape through dense fog, eliminating the physical and the metaphorical idea of a horizon. There is no future for these characters, just dense uncertainty and that’s an idea that Arnold has excelled in presenting. Wuthering Heights is an audacious retelling of the famous story; a unique retelling that should be championed and celebrated.
Wuthering Heights is released in Australia on October 11th
Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: James Howson, Kaya Scodelario, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave, Paul Hilton, Simone Jackson, Steve Evets, Lee Shaw, Amy Wren, Richard Guy