Hareton disturbed me the most in this film based on Wuthering Heights. Dour before his time, he appears now and then in the early scenes, a dirty blonde-haired urchin, to gawp at visitors, or to witness violent abuse from the sidelines. In the final scene, he is seen hanging up dogs by their collars. The depiction of Hareton is related to the 'cruelty breeds cruelty' message in Andrea Arnold's film – and in Emily Brontë's novel, if that can be seen, glibly, as a straight deliverer of messages. Considerable respect has been shown to the original: a fair amount of thought and research seems to have gone into finding out what was in Emily Brontë's mind and how she saw her characters, and into the late eighteenth century in Yorkshire. All the artefacts – stoneware jars, spades for digging out peat and so on – look as if they have been borrowed from a folk museum, the costumes appear to be authentic, and Heathcliff is black. All perfectly credible.
The unknown James Howson from Leeds was cast as the adult Heathcliff, with the equally unknown Solomon Glave as his young version. We do not find out which language he speaks when he first arrives, because there is very little speaking in the whole film. It is not dialogue- free, employing a few sentences and phrases from the novel, rather like the quotes a candidate might fish out for an A-level essay, with more of them in the film's second half, after Heathcliff's return, than in the first. At other times, the words which the characters use seem to have grown from improvisation sessions, giving the action a kind of Ken Loach feel at times. To leave out most of Emily Brontë's beautiful prose – and the second half of her story, as usual – are bold moves which a few literary folk might find outrageous. I can fully understand the opinions of those who might describe the film as 'coarse and disagreeable', but then the structure of the novel does not match the needs of the cinema. Unlike Cary Fukunaga, who retained as many of Charlotte's words as possible in his Jane Eyre, Andrea Arnold has gone in an opposite direction, because she has decided not to bother with conventional costume dramas.
This Wuthering Heights relies on cinematography, the impact of fresh and young actors (eat your heart out, Stanislavski), an authentic period feel and a powerful, often startling harshness. Arnold has said that she "had to pick out the things that had resonance to me" and that she wanted to give the children plenty of time at the beginning.
This was a good move, because the children are by far the most interesting. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer have "not acted before", but manage to be fascinating, holding everything together for an hour. Full marks to Arnold there. The story is told through sounds and sights: we see the boy's amazement and disorientation when he arrives, Cathy's warm smile – the only warmth – a feather brushing a cheek, his hand on the horse's rump when he rides behind her, his smelling of her hair, the weals on his back after a beating by Joseph, her mouth as she licks the blood from them, their crude and muddy sexual fumbling out on the moors. Sensual imagery with a vengeance! Raw teenage emotion in our faces! And I loved Shannon Beer's charming rendition of Barbara Allen. She's a proper wild, wicked slip of a girl.
Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan won the Golden Osella Award at the last Venice Film Festival for Best Cinematography, deservedly. His low shots through clumps of sedge and his panoramas of the moors (filming took place on the bleaker areas around Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales) are stunning, but what is especially memorable is his selection of close-ups of the insects, flowers and small creatures to be found in the heather and under the bilberries. I was looking out for harebells, but did not notice any. Perhaps they were the wrong kind of flower here. The wind sounded right – I recognise that wind – as it battered the microphone relentlessly.
The creatures of the wild moors a couple of centuries ago have a strong present-times feel, because casting in this way has put racial prejudice in the forefront. Heathcliff is full of revengeful passions because he has been racially abused. The violent skinhead Hindley (Lee Shaw) is notably foul-mouthed when he does speak, like an adherent of some far-right organisation, and the enforced baptism scene shows that the church was pretty short on tender loving care when it came to new dark-skinned members of the congregation. The West Yorkshire accents are just right.
In the second half, the adult Heathcliff (James Howson) does not spend long on relishing his revenge on Hindley, but that is not the only disappointment. Both James Howson and Kaya Scodelario, who plays the adult Cathy, bear only token resemblances to their child counterparts, and have less presence. Cathy is not differentiated from Isabella enough, and seems to be unrelated to her younger self, which can not be explained away by her presence in the sophistication of Thrushcross Grange, where manners (and the mild weather) are always better. Heathcliff seems somehow clumsier and less sympathetic, a fact which is not helped by James Howson's lack of acting experience (more forgivable in Solomon Glave), and the shots of flowers and insects which sustained the first half become less effective because they are repeated too much. James Northcote's acting as Edgar is faultless, but seems out of place here, as if he has stepped out of another film.
And that other film could be the 1939 version, which is at the other end of the spectrum.
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