Film Review – Wuthering Heights
While I enjoy watching films and television, I will always think of myself first and foremost as a reader. And as a reader, I tend to have very strong feelings about books. My love for certain stories is very strong, and my loathing for other narratives equally as powerful. So when I tell you I hate the 1847 book by Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I’m not just saying I kind of don’t like it. I abhor it, so much so that I can never get through the whole thing. It’s about unpleasant people wandering around the moors being grumpy. Ugh. So, when I was offered the opportunity to view Andrea Arnold’s new movie version, I figured I might as well go and try to get a different perspective on the whole thing.
One dark and stormy evening, the patriarch of the Earnshaw family (Paul Hilton) brings home a black youth (Solomon Glave) he finds wandering the streets of Liverpool, and proposes to give him a home as “the Christian thing to do.” His children, Hindley (Lee Shaw) and Catherine (Shannon Beer), greet this event with completely different reactions. Hindley cannot accept this encroachment upon his patrimony, and loathes the new child, Heathcliff, in word and action. Cathy is fascinated with him, and the two quickly become inseparable. Until the Linton family moves nearby.
Caught spying on the new family, Heathcliff is expelled from the house, while Cathy is welcomed in to recuperate after being bitten by a dog. Her view of the world is changed after seeing how the more affluent family lives, and her focus begins to wander away from Heathcliff and towards Edgar, the young heir. When it becomes clear to Heathcliff that Cathy will eventually marry Edgar, he leaves, only to return several years later, a few months after she has actually done so. Adult Heathcliff (James Howson) and Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) still love each other, but marriage, pregnancy, a revenge marriage, illness, and the continued badgering of Hindley ensure that tragedy can be the only outcome for the ill-fated lovers.
I still hate this story. I don’t really hate this film, but I do dislike every character in it. The world it inhabits is one where—until the Lintons arrive—there is only the thinnest veneer of civilization guiding anyone’s actions; everyone is all id and no ego. Except for the father, the entire Earnshaw family operates only out of want or desire. Someone will feel something and then immediately act on it. There is no morality or expectation of proper behavior. “I want” is the only motivating factor. This causes Hindley to brutalize Heathcliff, Cathy to follow her whims no matter who it hurts, and Heathcliff to become mired in his plans for vengeance.
When the Lintons come and bring civilization with them, they are figures of weakness and derision, and become mere objects to be manipulated by the stronger passions of Cathy and Heathcliff. I cannot sympathize with the main couple because they are so awful. Both actors portraying Heathcliff are completely opaque—you cannot see into his character at all. He just watches, wants, and acts. When my heart should be breaking for him, it does not because I cannot relate to him, or to any of the Earnshaws. I do not view the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy as romantic because I cannot see love in them; it is all “I want for me” and never “I want for you.” I was happy when it all ends poorly because, man, I could not stand these people. As a person who values intellect as well as emotions, I cannot accept the romantic premise that emotions unfettered by ego are superior or even desirable.
But as much as I dislike this story, I do not hate the film itself. Holy crap, is it beautiful. Arnold uses a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is like looking at a square that has been slightly elongated along the horizontal axis. (Nowadays, most films are long rectangles on the screen.) As a painter, I use a square canvas because it lets me get away from the portrait/landscape connotations that a rectangular canvas forces on the viewer, and a similar effect is achieved here. Compositionally, Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan format each shot as if it were a photograph. Extreme close-ups, deliberate blurring of the images, and intensely controlled colors create a singularly beautiful world. (I don’t like the shaky cam as much.) It is this amazing beauty that serves to romanticize the brutality of the natural world—and the nasty actions of the characters. Close-ups of bugs and dead rabbits are almost-cringe-worthy in their symbolic lack of subtlety, but in the end worked for me because they fit within the broader themes. I found the pacing to be off at times, but I am open to the idea that my lack of sympathy for any of the characters might have added to the dragging feeling.
For many reasons, this was a difficult film for me to like, and in the end, I can’t say that I did. But I thought it was both interesting and beautiful. I know that a lot of people find this story to be romantic, and while I cannot, this film is the only version of this story that has ever come close for me.
Final Grade: B