I should probably begin this review with a confession; I am the proud owner of a beaten up copy of Wuthering Heights who’s dog eared pages have seen many of my adolescent tears and smiles. It was disappointing then, for a story that carries such great emotional charge that I found myself leaving the cinema feeling…well, not much.
Kudos to Andrea Arnold, the Fish-Tank director known for her gritty depictions of working class urban life, for making the piece her own, often difficult when faced with adapting an enduringly popular novel. Arnold takes a metaphorical piss on Brontë’s classic in the form of her distinctive bold style to mark the territory as thoroughly modern and thoroughly her own.
This new adaptation is about as far away from the corsets and cravats of previous versions as Melbourne is from the UK (That’s a 22 hour flight people!). Arnold casts James Howson as the brooding Heathcliff, so issues of race hinted at in the novel are brought to the fore, giving the film a more contemporary resonance.
The first half is alarmingly quiet, whistling winds, chirping birds and torrential rain forming the soundtrack accompanying the sparse dialogue. I was waiting for those well-known quotes to pop up but instead Arnold chooses to focus our attention on the natural world, stunning sun-spotted shots of butterflies, feathers and animal skulls abound in an attempt to capture the harsh yet beautiful atmosphere of Brontë’s novel. The handheld camera lingers on small details, wisps of hair and almost-touching hands perfectly convey the inward struggle of the young protagonists.
However this preoccupation with the landscape becomes a weakness as we enter the films second half, our relationship with the characters has been poorly established after too much time spent admiring Robbie Ryan’s perfectly crafted shots of thistles. The adult actors deliver thin performances, no matter how many times Howson banged his head against that tree I was just not convinced of his inner angst and turmoil. The film attempts a more conventional tone here and Kathy and Heathcliffs story loses the emotional tenderness it was treated with in the first half. Overall it’s an admirable piece of film-making, the opening hour akin to a visual poem inspired by the literary classic rather than an adaptation, but sixty minutes in and it seems Arnold has begun to panic and she tries to lead the film down a more conventional route, unsuited to its wily cinematic beauty.
It achieves an almost tangible, visceral quality in its depiction of young love but ultimately fails to deliver the volcanic emotional eruption that gives this story it’s untimely appeal.
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