Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Howson, Kaya Scodelario, Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer, James Northcote, Nichola Burley, Paul Hilton, Simone Jackson, Steve Evets, Lee Shaw, Amy Wren
Written by: Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed, based on a novel by Emily Bront‘
Directed by: Andrea Arnold
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 129
Date: 06/09/2011

Wuthering Heights (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Heathcliff Hanger

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is generally less filmable than her older sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre. The latter is a romance, while Wuthering Heights is more of a story of passion, in all senses of the word.

Last year director Cary Fukunaga made a much-admired revisionist film version of Jane Eyre, and now director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank) tops it with her earthy, fleshy rendition of Wuthering Heights.

Like most other film versions of Wuthering Heights, Arnold concentrates on the first half of the novel, and not the second half that involves the next generation of characters.

But unlike the other versions, with their period costumes and lovely sets, this one takes place in what must be a more realistic setting, a leaky, drafty, unglamorous house built on the Yorkshire moors. The men must duck their heads to get through the squeaky doorway, and the floorboards creak under their muddy boots.

Arnold boxes her images into a narrow frame with muted colors, creating a damply chilling atmosphere. But Arnold's most striking contribution is to make leading man Heathcliff black. In the other stories, he's merely an outcast and a gypsy, deemed unworthy of Catherine's love, but here race becomes a more cruelly logical and resonant reason for him to be discriminated against.

One night near a poor farm a mysterious boy, Heathcliff (Solomon Glave), appears, and a farmer takes him in, over the disapproval of the rest of his family. However, young Catherine (Shannon Beer) realizes she can nurture her first burnings of rebellion by befriending him. They grow close, but fate conspires to keep them apart. When the farmer dies, Catherine's racist brother takes over the farm and turns Heathcliff into a slave who must sleep in the barn.

The meat of the story comes years later, after the runaway Heathcliff returns as a grown, well-to-do man (newcomer James Howson). Meanwhile, however, the grown-up Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) has married the wealthy, foppish neighbor Edgar (James Northcote).

While this Heathcliff is not an outright monster, he is monstrous; he is shown occasionally tormenting animals and flying into terrifying fits of rage and self-pity. Catherine can't tame him any more than he can give her security; this is the ultimate romantic tragedy, set at the place where love and death meet.

By cutting away the fancy decorations usually associated with literary adaptations, Arnold has stripped Wuthering Heights to its essence. This movie may not have frills, but its heart, full of pain and pleasure, truly beats.

In spring of 2013, Oscilloscope released a DVD edition (a Blu-ray is apparently forthcoming), which preserves the movie's cramped aspect ratio. However, the movie's specific and subtle textures would be better served by high-def. The only extra is a 20-minute video essay by my friend Dave Fear, film critic for Time Out New York. There are also some trailers for other Oscilloscope releases.

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