In adapting Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold was faced with a choice; she could have made yet another straight, dull version of a well known classic which has already been done to death (the route taken by Cary Fukunaga earlier this year with his insipid version of Jane Eyre). Or, she could have done what she did, which was re-imagine the novel in a risky, innovative and uniquely cinematic way.
The cinematography of Wuthering Heights is so consistently cerebral that it almost feels as though the film is being beamed straight into your brain, Matrix style. Shot in favour of Heathcliff's point of view, the camera is shaky and subjective; we only experience what Heathcliff experiences, we only hear what he hears, we only see what he sees (there's a lot of peeking through cracks in doors). There's also a lot of weather. This film takes pathetic fallacy just about as far as it can go without becoming ridiculous; there is serious rain and biblical wind (what with it being 'Wuthering Heights' and all) almost constantly. In fact, Arnold seems to have used the wind in lieu of a soundtrack, which is very atmospheric and works well. And, of course, extensive use is made of the wild and untamed beauty of the English moors.
Critics have said of Arnold's Wuthering Heights that it begins well, tails off in the middle, and loses the plot by the end. The first half of the film, which shows the arrival of Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights and his burgeoning relationship with Cathy while they are children, is thought to be brilliant, while the transition from children to adults is said to be jarring, with the adult actors unable to continue the intensity of the children. While this may be true of Kaya Scodelario, who makes for a rather watery adult Cathy, it most certainly is not true of James Howson as adult Heathcliff. After hearing that Cathy is planning to marry another, child Heathcliff does a bunk in the middle of the night. Rather than sticking in the traditional 'five years later' routine that most directors do when they are faced with a time jump, Arnold simply cuts straight to yet another shot of the misty moor, in the centre of which adult Heathcliff slowly appears, walking towards the camera. Far from being jarring, I felt that this version of the transition was simply 'no-nonsense', rather like this entire adaptation, if the sex, violence and swearing are anything to go by (Heathcliff even yells the dreaded c-word at the rather refined family of Cathy's betrothed). As for James Howson himself (an untrained, inexperienced actor), he does an exquisite job of portraying the half-mad, lovesick, suicidal Heathcliff; in fact he brought me to tears during a certain climactic scene.
Wuthering Heights shares many characteristics with Arnold's earlier film Fish Tank, not the least of which is the feeling of being trapped. There is an overwhelming sense of imprisonment throughout the film, perhaps conjured by Heathcliff's subjective viewpoint. Arnold has famously cast Heathcliff as black, presumably brought to England against his will judging by the whip marks on his back. Arnold shoots Heathcliff as though he is weighed down, fenced in by something; the square screen ratio also helps to make even the rolling landscape of the moors seem closed in. The film never leaves this setting, and by the end it has become almost claustrophobic, stuffed with endless shots of moths, dead animals, rotting fruit and the like. By about two thirds of the way through I was itching to jump up and run out of the theatre, but towards what I don't know; perhaps it was just sympathy for imprisoned Heathcliff, marching inexorably towards his own doom.
Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment. It is on general release in Britain, and hopefully soon will be everywhere else.