Posted on CriterionCast May 1st, 2012 as part of IFFBoston 2012 coverage
Let’s just get this right out in the open; I do not like the story of Wuthering Heights. The novel, from the little I remember having read it in high school, never appealed to me. Cathy and Heathcliff’s dark and unresolved passion is admittedly bold as is the novel’s frank use of natural but ugly emotions such as revenge and rage. Yet I could never get past how unlikeable the tortured couple is. Even if this is purposeful, I am unable to locate a reason to care about their suffering-ridden plight. Part of my response to Andrea Arnold’s third full-length feature can be attributed to these pre-established feelings; but only part of it. To put it bluntly, the final hour of this refreshingly unconventional adaptation approaches intolerability. This is a shame, because by the end of the first half I was ready to proudly declare my love for Andrea Arnold’s bracingly original take on Wuthering Heights.
Two sets of actors play Cathy and Heathcliff and the film, which is succinctly sliced into two halves. Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave depict them as youths while Kaya Scodelario and James Howson play the ‘older’ youths.
Visually and aesthetically, Andrea Arnold is at the top of her game. There are few directors currently working with an eye that is entirely their own, and hers is distinct and freakishly unforced. After only three feature films, the word auteur is entirely applicable. Shooting once again in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, her voice is a vital and cherished one, with Wuthering Heights serving as further evidence of her immense talents. She takes the symbolically charged moors and portrays a fully-formed all-encompassing depiction of nature and the elements that encapsulate the wild and unexplainable urges at the core of this romance.
Has there ever been a film that has more fully entrenched the viewer in its natural environment? The effect is awe-inspiring.The audience is more than an observer; we tumble face-first into the mud of this unstable environment. Arnold’s priority lies with the landscape, concentrating on the environmental surroundings the characters inhabit. There is no score here, and all-natural lighting is used, allowing us to perceive their lives as they experience it. The intricate soundscape constructed to enhance the sense of being there is likely the most impressive that will be heard this year. Arnold alternates, entirely with handheld camera, between tightened close-ups and sparse wide shots.
The director has a knack for being able to show endless shots, of both the larger landscape and the miniscule components that nature is comprised of, without it ever feeling repetitive or redundant. It goes far beyond superficiality reaching the point where it becomes a central source of deeper beauty because of the muted absence of glorification.
As a young Cathy, Beer is well-cast; she has a gruff and adventurous spirit. Glove is fine, but the impenetrability of the character translates as a bit of a blank slate rather than someone filled to the brim with conflicting but incomprehensible emotions. Their chemistry is a bit lacking, but Arnold is largely able to cover this up. She has a way of allowing moments to play out viscerally and subjectively, seemingly in slow motion but not; in the first half we feel what they feel whether we want to or not.
This all sounds like a glowing review, and despite the unfortunate horrors that come next, this is still recommended viewing. Its strengths cannot be overstated.
When the film shifts into its second half, not even the visual palette that remains can pull it up out of its own misgivings. Arnold’s artistry is still present as ever but everything surrounding it sours, leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Some time has passed; Cathy and Heathcliff have gotten older. Thus we arrive at the first problem.
The actors playing Cathy and Heathcliff are a downgrade of the first degree. Beer and Glove, non-actors à la Katie Jarvis, share a natural interplay that feels like a real unspoken connection. Scodelario and Howson, two professional actors, are pretty people who simply cannot act (at least judging by this film). Scodelario is a stunner and Arnold takes advantage of this. Howson is capable of crying and banging his head against a tree and a door but somehow he never shows any actual emotion. It is clear from the get-go that these two are acting and incompetently at that.
The two have zero chemistry or depth, are devoid of presence and incapable of effective line delivery. Worst of all, the pair come off as wholly uninteresting characters. Cathy and Heathcliff are stripped of any iconic complexities and replaced with an angsty set of temper tantrums that give Bella and Edward a run for their money. Finally, the crucial carnal element that is supposed to drive the film is absent between the two actors.
This is only partly their fault; they have nothing to work with. The second half of this story is distancing enough as it is, as both characters actions are wrought with a selfishness that the audience cannot connect with, or even marvel at with perverse fascination.
Olivia Hetreed wrote the screenplay, with a rewrite from Arnold. The end result is scrawny and sparse in all the wrong ways. The first half of the film allows a certain freedom where Arnold can shine and the dialogue can comfortably fit the take-it-or-leave-it mold required of it. The second half of the story has a much higher degree of plot-oriented obligations. When the dialogue, what little there is, has to deliver, it cannot stand on its own two feet. Furthermore, with actors this dead-on-arrival, the raw emotion and self-destructive nature the two are supposed to generate never materializes.
Arnold is restrained by the story she has to tell in its final hour. That freedom is gone and a distance between her and material, and thus between us and the story, persists as it moves towards concluding. She desperately tries to remind us, through edits of moments between the two younglings, of what brought us to this place; that these are the characters we spent the first consistently moving hour with. The second half is also drawn out far past its capabilities and at a certain point, sadly, it almost becomes unintentionally funny.
Like any rational person I accept that everybody experiences films differently, each with their own unique take. Yet Wuthering Heights had me seriously questioning how anybody could feel caught up in, moved or satisfied by the final half of this film.
What ends as an empty masochistic jaunt through the moors, starts as a startlingly realized story of two people whose dark passion for each other simmers beneath the surface as children. In the first half, the level of subjective transference is uncommonly high. We feel what they feel, from the blustering wind and the harsh rain to the unspoken declarations and the physicality of their unknowable urges. The final half is the opposite; we become uninterested observers. Events take place but the film transforms into a fully passive viewing experience. Instead of feeling the characters emotions, we watch from a great distance while they self-destruct, as the film becomes more intolerable the closer it gets to ending.
Wuthering Heights begins as a must-see and ends as a must-avoid. Andrea Arnold is a master at her craft, and what she brings to the table is a first hour that is wholly immersive and rewarding on many levels. While my hatred for the second half has stayed with me perhaps more than my love and admiration for the first, Wuthering Heights demands to be seen, not least because the voice behind it is invaluable. Yet it just so happens that its final hour is one of the more insufferable chunks of film these eyes have had to see in years.
Be warned; there are a handful of murderous incidents of animal cruelty primarily involving a goat and a rabbit.