Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 06, 2012 1:40 pm 
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Beautiful, harsh wordless wildness on the moors

Andrea Arnold has redone the Emily Bront├ź novel with Heathcliff as an Afro-Caribbean ex-slave, using handheld cameras, reducing dialogue to a bare minimum, the Earnshaw house seeming a primitive hut, and focusing heavily on the earthy damp setting of the moors. Beetles and moths, pale skies, and the texture of skin are beautifully and memorably rendered, brutal beatings of young Heathcliff, mistreatment of hounds and slaughter of rabbit and sheep made almost unbearably real. It works well when Catherine and Heathcliff are running around the moors as young adolescents, inseparable pals subconsciously building an undying love. But when it comes to the later complexities of plot, Catherine's marriage, Heathcliff's disappearance, his return years later turned into a gentleman, the non-verbal, expressionist style and the telling of the story only from Heathcliff's point of view rather than the servant Nellie's winds up making the film feel repetitive and -- without the long passionate speeches of the novel -- curiously drained of emotion, despite following the book's main outlines closely as far as it goes. (As in other retellings, the latter part of the book's details about Catherine's and Heathcliff's children is cut out.) This Wuthering Heights is beautiful to look at and drenched in earthy atmosphere but it's a little too wilful and original for its own good.

The film provides an original experience. It reminded me of Robert Frank's 1961 mystical short based on Isaac Babel, The Sin of Jesus, shot in a chicken farm. All the technical aspects are infinitely more sophisticated this time, of course, but Arnold creates someting of the same raw effect. A danger is that the actors (many of them non-pros) wear their 19th-century costumes so naturally that the effect will be a little too contemporary. The story is in two parts, and so there must be two Catherines and two Heathcliffs, which works unevenly. Since the camerawork makes texture so important, it's key that Solomon Glave as youth Heathcliff has creamy coffee skin, and Shannon Beer, as young Catherine, his inseparable companion, has a pale complexion with ruddy cheeks that photograph beautifully. The transition to James Howson as the older Heathcliff works well: his face is handsome, peaceful, and youthful (in the novel he's only away three and a half years). But Kaya Scodelario, a more experienced actress, is a wholly different person as the older Catherine, taller, thinner, long-necked, and sophisticated. Bad match.

Making the dark-skinned "gypsy" orphan foundling Heathcliff a literal person of color is justifiable and works, adding a touch of novelty and not overemphasized or changing the existing abused status of the character. What some may object to or think a bit much is what Variety reviewer Leslie Felperin calls "the creepy sado-masochistic atmosphere," which he feels is "underscored" when the older Heathcliff bites the lips of Cathy's sister-in-law Isabella Linton (Nichola Burley) when he kisses her in plain view to make Cathy jealous (or in the book as revenge against Mr. Linton - Oliver Milburn). More to the point, the beatings of young Heathcliff by the mean and jealous Hindley (Lee Shaw) and his father Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) are a little too intense and real, as are the gestures of animal cruelty, notably hanging up several dogs on fences by their collars, and watching a sheep die up close. Curiously, young Heathcliff doesn't seem to suffer very much from the betings. Solomon Glave conveys his rebellion well -- or is this young non-pro just inexpressive?

At first it doesn't matter. The first half of Arnold's Wuthering Heights is a compelling visual poem. The cinematography is fresh, beautiful, and fluid, the only sound the wind and the rain (which seems torrential and endless) and the cast singing folksongs (a modern song accompanies the last scene and the closing credits). Key moments from the book, like the conversation between Cathy and Nelly (Simone Jackson) when she says she would never marry Edgar if she could marry Heathcliff, are kept intact. But there is another gaffe in casting because when we go from young Edgar (Jonny Powell) to older, husband Edgar (James Northcote), we switch from a normal boy to a scrawny-faced, peculiar-looking adult. And one wonders why when Heathcliff has called the adult Edgar a "shivering coward," the latter is immediately able to beat him up? And why in this earthy version of a great romance is there relatively so little sexual heat?

Apart from these problems is the fact that the powerful wordless imagery of the early part prooves a method insufficient to develop the later events clearly. We don't even learn, of course, that the mansion of the Linton family is called Thrushcross Grange; and I'm not sure showing ledger entries is sufficient to explain that the older Heathcliff has taken over the mortgage on the Earnshaws' house -- or even that their name is Earnshaw, and that this primitive farm is called Wuthering Heights! We're still somehow stuck with the point of view of the adolescent Heathcliff, who in the early scenes we are not sure at first can even speak English. This doesn't mean that the visuals of Thrushcross Grange inside and out are not authentic and real, like everything else. Arnold may be doing sometihng remarkabe with point of view here, but that it's always Heathcliff's and his alone, and maybe more the young Heathcliff's than the mature one's, is indicated by frequent brief flashbacks to him with young Catherine in the later part.

Arnold's previous feature, the 2009 Fish Tank, a study of working class sexual confusion and misbehavior, is as richly observed and tightly wound as any film of the last decade, and it contains what is probably Michael Fassbender's best performance to date. This is an example of what she does best, as is her 2003 short Wasp, for which she won an Oscar. She strays from that in this new film. But after over a dozen screen versions of the book, I would still not want to give up on this one, because of the way its original take stands out. It's at least what Felperin calls it, "An admirable attempt to strip the story of Wuthering Heights down to its barest, most primal elements." Even if only an attempt, it's a fascinating one, with great moments, mainly involving images of the two Heathcliffs and, of course, the gorgeous mud, muck and rain of the moors shot by Arnold's distinctive cinematogerpher, Robbie Ryan.

Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights debuted at Venice in 2011 and was also shown at Toronto and other international festivals last year, opening in the UK Nov. 11, 2011, continuing at other festivals, opening in the US Oct. 5, 2012, France Dec. 5. Screened for this review Oct. 6 at Film Forum, New York.

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