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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 19, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 42
Unflinching Wuthering Heights brings Brontë into the now
Arts & Entertainment
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Unflinching Wuthering Heights brings Brontë into the now

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

WUTHERING HEIGHTS
Opens October 19


I'm not sure the world needs a new take on Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. The 1939 version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, directed by William Wyler, is universally viewed as a classic, one of the best films of its particular year, and considering said year is widely considered the greatest of all time that's high praise indeed. More to the point, it's one of many adaptations. From cinema to television to theater over the decades numerous versions have come and gone, so mining it would seem every last ounce of Brontë's text leaving little for newcomers to potentially uncover.

Enter Andrea Arnold, Academy Award winner for her 2003 short film Wasp and the acclaimed auteur behind the 2009 triumph Fish Tank. Co-writing the screenplay with Olivia Hetreed (Girl With a Pearl Earring), her take on the treasured literary hallmark is barren, bleak, and stripped to the emotional bone. It is a visceral affair, devoid of a heavy hand and intent on letting the images and themes of Brontë's book speak for themselves. For long stretches the film is close to dialogue-free, leaving only the haunting stares of protagonist Heathcliff (Solomon Glave as a boy, James Howson as a young man, both making their debut) and the surreal sounds of the wind sweeping through the Yorkshire highlands to get the majority of its points across.

SPARKING PASSION
It is during the passage looking at Heathcliff as a boy that the movie truly excels and becomes something extraordinary. Taking up just over half of the film's 128-minute running time, this bit with the youngster being taken in out of the rain and cold by devout farmer Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) and introduced to his family, including the man's kindhearted daughter Catherine (fellow newcomer Shannon Beer), is extraordinary. Facing the brutal indifference of her brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) and the suspicion of a townsfolk unnerved by his dark skin and belligerent ways, the connection that somehow develops between him and Catherine is pure and genuine. There is a spark behind their story, an ember to the passion - the pain sent in their direction and the exterior factors combining to keep them apart all the more heartbreaking because of it.

My issues come during the last third when Heathcliff is grown and Catherine (now played by Kaya Scodelario) finds herself wed, unsure if her teenage crush will ever return to be a part of her life. These sequences, dripping with tragedy, feel somewhat disconnected from the events that preceded them. As a result, the eventual outcome doesn't crackle with the same emotional electricity as the earlier portion. Things more or less transpire as expected, almost as if Arnold wasn't as interested in her climax as she was with all the stuff leading up to it.

INTIMATE AUTHENTICITY
Be that as it may, I really liked this new version of Wuthering Heights - at times outright adored it. The movie is fantastically well shot by Robbie Ryan (Brick Lane), the acclaimed director of photography creating a Dogma-like authenticity that's as intimate as it is shocking. From the landscapes to the creases of a person's smile, all of it matters as far as the story is concerned, the internal intricacies of the human condition revealed in visual layers that more often than not caught me by surprise.

Then there is the sound design. In Arnold's vision, there is no music (other than a bizarrely placed Mumford & Sons tune sung over the end credits), no audio interference from a world outside of the one depicted here, only the aural symphonies of the wind, rain, rippling grass, barking dogs, and footsteps tromping through muddy terrain. This is the score that propels the drama forward, the music that brings everything to life, and through this choice Arnold manages to conjure a spell of rapture and regret so melodious there were times I felt I was walking across the rolling Yorkshire hills right along with Heathcliff, Catherine, and the rest.

Is this new Wuthering Heights essential? Probably not, and I'm not entirely sure romantics who have read every page of the book a thousand or so times are going to be completely pleased with Arnold's unflinching, at times modernized (four-letter putdowns are a frequent occurrence), take on the material. But she gets right to the heart of Brontë's world in a way few others have, allowing for a connection to the characters that held me spellbound. While the world may not need another version of this particular tale, I certainly did - and I have feeling there will be plenty of others out there who, after they have the good fortune to view it, will feel the same way.

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