I remember reading Wuthering Heights as a twelve year old. I was excited about starting a new Bronte novel, having loved the mystery and romantic intrigue of Jane Eyre. What I actually got, though, was something far more troubling…
When I first read it, Wuthering Heights scared and confused me. A love story it may be, but finally, with that novel, Emily Bronte wrote the first novel in the English language that was actually ABOUT love – not just cramming the pages with romantic clichés. Due to countless, pathetic film adaptations, many people have misconceptions about what the book is like. Just to set the record straight – it is an incredibly dark, disturbing work of literature, as raw and passionate as anything I have ever read. It is about an undying, obsessive love – made all the more uncanny and urgent by the fact that it is never consummated.
Andrea Arnold, the film’s director, is a brave woman – having taken what I believe to be one of the finest novels ever written, and committing it to screen, making vast omissions and adapting it to her own, personal vision. But ironically, more than any previous director, she has stayed fundamentally true to the spirit of the novel – its raw beauty, its shocking brutality and deep, troubling questions about human emotion and love itself. Purists of the novel may detest this adaptation for the changes made to its structure – but I think the exact opposite should be true: what Arnold has done is put her own, magnificent artistic stamp on an over adapted source, breathing life and soul into the material, and moulding it to her advantage. It is perfectly measured and deeply felt – not once does the film feel rushed or artificial.
At the centre of the film are four incredibly naturalistic performances from largely unknown actors as the younger and older versions of Heathcliff and Cathy. Just from the modern slang and accents, Arnold emphasises the relevance of the source material to our generation – the novel explores universal, timeless themes, and although her adaptation is set in the same time frame as the original novel, this would not necessarily have had to be the case.
The cinematography and editing, in particular, are devastatingly impressive, making maximum use of the sparse beauty of the Yorkshire highlands, and contriving beautiful, spiritual moments to contrast with the harsh, brutally cruel acts of violence committed throughout; there are moments of sexual tension, self harm and animal cruelty that are sometimes so dramatic and immediate, they are hard to watch – exclamation marks in what is, in truth, a very dark meditation on love, revenge and the cruelty of nature (with particular emphasis being on its disquieting indifference to humankind).
There is an almost primitive, elemental driving force behind this adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Haunting imagery and symbolism, together with images of unbridled passion and sexual longing, combine to make a unique viewing experience; in some ways, this is even more impressive (if not as polished) as the extraordinary We Need To Talk About Kevin – in that it has actually put a new spin on an old classic. This is an adaptation no one is likely to ever forget.
Admittedly, it is a little rough around the edges – in terms of acting and technical aspects. Personally, I thought that towards the end, some of Arnold’s most potent images became slightly diminished in their impact on the audience through unnecessary repetition. Nevertheless, they linger in the mind long afterwards. This is a feral, demented love story – the viewing itself not far different from a punch in the gut. Arnold has created a blisteringly, hauntingly beautiful adaptation, with her own ending and oodles of visual genius. I have the utmost respect – here, finally, is a worthy adaptation of my favourite novel. See it on the big screen if you can!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (November ’11)