Ah, adaptations. Furthering my argument that I cannot read a book before seeing its adapted movie is Wuthering Heights (2012)–I say 2012, but it came out virtually everywhere else a whole year ago in one of the longest release lists I’ve ever seen–which, I am told, is quite unlike the book. So here’s this novel by Emily Brontë which is generally considered a classic of the highest order and everything about this adaptation screams adultery. “An epic tale of love and revenge.” “Love is a force of nature.” “A beautiful beast of a movie.” The first sign in the movie is the title font, which is a bold 70’s style stencil (one blogger suggests it is Bauhus), and projects notes of retro and camp. I haven’t read the book. About ten minutes in I think to myself these very words: “Okay, I haven’t read the book. Watch this like it isn’t adapting anything. It’s just a movie. Take it on its own merits.” If there’s one thing you get from this review, it’s that this is the absolute only way in which the movie is of value.
Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) brings in a young boy from the streets (Solomon Glave, later James Howson) as a measure of his, Earnshaw’s, Christian charity. The boy is instantly hated by Hindley (Lee Shaw), Earnshaw’s son, while Catherine (Shannon Beer, later Kaya Scodelario) takes an interest. Catherine befriends the boy who is named and almost christened Heathcliff. They spend a great deal of time in the moors. Heathcliff spends so much time in the moors that it’s a wonder he hasn’t died of pneumonia with all of the monsoons Yorkshire was victim to during that period. Heathcliff and Cathy fall in love in their fashion but Cathy’s beauty comes to the attention of the Lintons, the local wealth, and she is taken under their care for a time. The young boy Edgar (Jonny Powell, later James Northcote), by all accounts a pathetic excuse for man in such a moody place, too falls in love with Cathy (after his bloodless fashion) and Cathy must decide between wealth and primal, angst-ridden attraction. Old Mr. Earnshaw dead and Hindley taking his place, making Heathcliff’s life a misery, creates a terrible, ambivalent environment for Heathcliff. So, saying little (as usual), runs off into the night to seek his fortune and return a man.
The style of this movie is very distinctive. The statement of events above is rather generous to the film if you are one who likes your movies to be plot-driven. A romantic novel is certainly, perhaps by definition, plot-driven and to adapt one creates an expectation of familiarity with the plot and invite a projection of your own interpretation of the characterization onto the actors. This will then, typically, form your opinion of the film by its coherence with your own pre-determined reading of the character. “Oh, he just isn’t Heathcliff/Darcy/Rochester to me” or “He’s just the perfect Heathcliff/Darcy/Rochester.” (I wonder, aloud, if anyone has such feelings about Cathy/Elizabeth/Jane.) This film is not particularly concerned with plot. Instead, we watch all from the perspective of Heathcliff (about two feet above and to the right of Heathcliff, in point of fact).
That is a touch misleading. Despite my intention of seeing the movie as without connection to any source material, I was continuously visited with the sense that a little milestone was being marked. These are all seen from a distance or through a hole in the wall so that Heathcliff might be contrived to have observed the event. Here lies the bit where Earnshaw dies. Here lies the bit where Cathy talks to Ellen (Simone Jackson) about her feelings. Here lies the bit where Edgar proposes to Cathy. I was reminded of the mildly terrible book Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) which follows the story of the crazy lady in the attic from the excellent Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë. Towards the end of that book, the crazy lady has moments of lucidity where she [spoiler alert?] steals the veil and jumps from the burning building. Both there and here, there’s a touch of annoyingly contrived shoe-horning that predominates.
And this singularity of perspective is held onto quite firmly. The camera trundles along behind Heathcliff like it’s reality television. “Day 8: Hindley has beaten Heathcliff again for talking to Cathy. Let’s see what happens next.” Except, unlike reality television, the camera is right up in Heathcliff’s nostrils communicating his rutting, burning passion and angst. His emotion is in our ears. What’s more, I don’t think I really like Heathcliff very much.
The camera is also atop various hills and valleys to display the incredible wonder that is moody, moor-clad Albion in digital full screen. That’s right, this is a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, not a widescreen 1.85:1 ratio, the dirty devils. Not only devils, but fools. These are some gorgeous landscapes and skies, what could possibly possess you to put less of this beauty on screen? Add to this dubious distinction the even dubiouser choice of going virtually music-free and we’ve got ourselves a patient requiring instant a cranio-rectal extraction if storytelling is to continue.
That said, I did get used to the style after a point. I’ve seen and enjoyed movies of the incredibly somber and minimally-dialogued like Valhalla Rising (2009), Cast Away (2000), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and Somewhere (2010). I can get past that. But with Wuthering Heights, the content fails to make me care. I’m engrossed, mostly in horror, by Heathcliff’s behavior. Some of it I find quite wonderful, like when he’s so happy that Cathy has come home, but when faced with her becomes instantly defensive and confused. Great work. The film begins with elder Heathcliff (James Howson) running into a wall over and over again like an idiot. Other times, he bangs his head against things and sleeps out on the dewy moors while we listen to the water cycle in action. Badly done, (writer/director) Andrea Arnold, it was badly done. (Co-written with Olivia Hetreed)
This may push you in alternative directions depending on tastes, but the movie is near theft of Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven (1978). Close up on insects dying (a lot), impersonal observation of brutal landscapes, violent sexual tension, and a disinclination to say anything are done exactly the same way. Some love that movie and will see this as a recommendation. I don’t particularly mean it in that way. Some of those things are very fine, others are not, but what I am certain of is that they do not, even in combination, make up an entire movie.
All of that said, I did not hate the movie. The performances were absolutely powerful. This film is the debut film for both Heathcliffs. Astounding. The director tells you to run into the wall like an idiot, you run into the wall like an idiot. And he did it well. The Cathys were likewise wonderful, though I say Beer outperformed Scodelario in terms of duty to the character. Scodelario seemed, possibly, out of her depth for the kind of brutal realism everyone else seemed determined to bring out (at great risk to their physical safety). Also, I’d note that Steve Evets, from the show Rev. (2010-11) is there and acting marvelously. But if you avoid the difficulty of writing good, expository dialogue by writing little or nothing, you have simply traded one defect for another.
Warning to animal lovers. I didn’t sit around to see whether the boilerplate was stamped onto the end, but if it was, there is serious doubt that no animals were harmed making this movie. These animals, I doubly warn you, include the cutest known to creation.