I saw the current release of Wuthering Heights at Toronto last year, and it made a memorable, if mixed, impression.
I don’t know the book; I only know the Laurence Olivier version of the film in which Heathcliffe and Catherine reunite on the Victorian-era English moors. So making Heathcliffe an African refugee was an interesting surprise.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was director Andrea Arnold’s use of a documentary, neorealist style. The style works incredibly well for the film’s first half hour. Young Heathcliffe (Solomon Glave, playing 11 or 12 years old), a refugee from the slave trade with America, was recently taken in by an English farming family. He rarely speaks; he listens and observes. That’s exactly what the cinematography (by Robbie Ryan, shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio) and sound design do, too. We see what Heathcliffe sees; we hear what he hears.
Heathcliffe sits in a room overlooking the moor. It’s a beautiful landscape of heather, mist, and gentle, dramatic hills. It’s also a lonely landscape with no hint of community or civilization. It’s not idealized, either; there is mud and death, but also fecundity and life.
His adoptive sister Catherine (Shannon Beer) reins a horse, and Heathcliffe stares in detail at the bit in its mouth (is he remembering his chains, or just observing?). She takes him for a ride on the horse, and the camera stares at the motion of their hips on the horse, then his nose resting right next to her hair, smelling her soap. Wuthering Heights is, in the beginning at least, a very sensual film. It doesn’t feel staged; there is an immediacy to the photography that makes it feel like a document of Heathcliffe’s experience.
But childhood doesn’t last. Eventually Heathcliffe is asked to contribute to the household. The father who treated him well dies and the cruel elder brother takes over. Heathcliffe falls in love with Catherine, but she does not requite his love; it’s not even a possibility that this lower-middle class but beautiful farmer’s daughter would consider an orphan boy from Africa. So Heathcliffe runs away.
The second half of the movie features the same characters as adults (played now by James Howson and Kaya Scodelario). The casting and acting are uncanny between young and old versions of the characters. Heathcliffe returns to the farm, educated, well dressed, wealthy, and intent on somehow rubbing it in with the family who first took him in and then spurned him.
This Wuthering Heights is an experiment that I support and like. But there are some flaws that keep me from strongly recommending it. For one, at just over two hours, the film feels far too long. The slow pacing at the beginning is delicious, and I wouldn’t change it, but once the story starts I wanted it to move faster. Also, the observant, patient tone fails to support the scenery-chewing passion demanded by the later story. Heathcliffe’s return is proof that he couldn’t get Catherine and the estate out of his head. But the deadpan performances and slow filmmaking contradict that inner passion, and make the conclusion a harder sell.
For most, Wuthering Heights probably won’t work as a movie. But as a purely visual and sensual experience, it might still be worth the trip to the theater.