Wuthering Heights (2011)

19 08 2012

It’s important to mention that I have no emotional attachment to the source text at all. I read Wuthering Heights once in high school and I’ve forgotten everything about save the general story. That’s really all Andrea Arnold uses in her latest movie, which has to be one of the most genuinely fucked up adaptations of classic literature, if only for the fact that it bears no resemblance to any other adaptations. Instead of some flowery, dialogue-driven “prestige” picture that fully fleshes out the novel’s content, we’re given a claustrophobic, quiet, and all around uncomfortable bit of realism. Oddly enough, Arnold captures more beauty in the harsh landscapes with her probing camera than something that planned to be “picture-esque.”

Arnold isn’t really doing anything new here, this is largely the same type of movie as Fish Tank but there’s something inherently bizarre about comparing a movie about a contemporary angsty teenager with one of the most beloved pieces of British literature. However, I think the similarities are important and kind of get to the essence of the story quicker than the alternate route. After all, this is also a story about teenagers and they’re just as angry as Mia is in Fish Tank. Of course, the counterargument would be that Arnold’s aesthetic kind of glosses over much of what makes the novel a classic. I wouldn’t be surprise if someone who adores the novel, loathes this adaptation since it really only takes the skeleton of the story.

So I’ve mostly just talked a lot of hot air so far without really describing anything about the movie. I hate comparing something as transcendent (serious) as this film to other things, but I guess there’s shades of The New World, especially that film’s latter half, but there’s a more direct, “realist” approach. This means there’s a lot of steadicam sequences following people as they walk around, but I love that. It’s especially impressive when they’re walking through a torrential downpour, which seems to happen a lot. It’s a problem comparing everything to Gummo but imagine that finally sequence in the rain, but it’s all shot like an Alan Clarke movie, also it looks even better.

Like the films mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is a film built upon intensely intimate moments. In one sequence, Heathcliff is whipped for ignoring his duties to hang out with Catherine. The next time he and Catherine are together she licks his (still fresh) wounds. This sounds weird and maybe a little stupid, but under Arnold’s eye, it’s one of the most devastatingly beautiful things imaginable. I mentioned it in the review for I Want You but there is something extremely impressive about a filmmaker who knows how and when to shoot something extremely close. Most of this film is built with tight compositions but Arnold manages to go into an almost mode in which the senses are heightened.

The movie does lose some of it’s momentum when everyone has grown up. The dialogue is still sparse, but there’s a noticeable increase. The setting changes from the muddy fields of a farm in Yorkshire to the comforts of an prestigious home. There are still inspired moments of beauty but the tonal shift and the presence of a professional performer, Kaya Scodelario, slows down the visceral impact of the film’s frantic opening hour. It’s still absolutely world class filmmaking but it’s a tiny letdown. You can almost feel Arnold being confused at what to do for certain stretches. She manages to cleverly link long conversations with poetic flashbacks that still provide some sting.

If anything, this might be the defining masterpiece of Andrea Arnold’s short but stunning career. It’s a project that was originally intended to be another cookie-cutter “prestige” adaptation with names like Natalie Portman and Michael Fassbender signed on, but it became something entirely different. A film that captures the beauty in the literal ugliness of the world (the weather) and in the figurative. It’s all the more heartbreaking because Arnold doesn’t flesh out her characters to the level of the source text. They could be reasonable with words, but people seldom manage to be that way in real life.  Instead, they’re opaque and fractured depictions, but it makes them all the more fascinating and all the more true. This is absolutely one of the best movies of the 21st century and easily, the best adaptation of Wuthering Heights.




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