Arnold Freshens Up 'Wuthering Heights'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Andrea Arnold is one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today, and it's terrific that, unlike some of her contemporaries, she appears to be working on a pretty steady basis. The director of two prior features, 2009's "Fish Tank" and 2006's "Red Road," her most recent completed feature is a 2011 adaptation of the classic Gothic romance "Wuthering Heights," which is just now getting something like a United States release. If this Arnold fan finds it something of a disappointment, it's not an inordinately disheartening one.
Search: More on 'Wuthering Heights'
Apparently, some kind of a newfangled film version of the intense, doomed romance of Cathy and Heathcliff and the moors had been in the works for some time, and Arnold was the third director to be brought in on the project. While the movie is, like both of Arnold's features, very visually beautiful, displaying an exceptional eye for the kind of detail that you don't necessarily expect in a period piece -- this is a movie ever-sensitive to textures, be it the grain of a wooden floor, the dew dripping off a spider's web, the mane of a horse galloping at full speed -- it never seems to find a sure footing dramatically. It's too diffuse, and it seems a little too aware of the fact that it's doing "Wuthering Heights" to ever convincingly be the story of obsessive love that the Emily Bronte story apparently is, or has been, to generations.
That said, Arnold pulls off the movie's most arguably audacious but completely appropriate conceit: that is, casting Heathcliff as black, very deftly; it never comes off as novelty for its own sake. Both Solomon Glave as teen Heathcliff and James Howson as the adult character bring an interesting kind of quiet-storm broodiness to the character, who's more often than not played as a wild-eye love marauder in other versions. Catherine, first played by Shannon Beer and then Kaya Scodelario, is a more overtly diffident character than what we're used to.
Arnold's measured approach to the narrative, which sometimes seems to privilege conveying environment over actually moving the story forward, results in a film that is always interesting but never entirely compelling. To the extent that Heathcliff's climactic acts of desperation seem indicative more of pathology than immortal passion. Which maybe they "really" were/are, but that kind of defeats the purpose of why "Wuthering Heights" was written in the first place, I dare say.
Maybe the problem is that the material itself is over-familiar, but the movie never builds the sense of dread that was so palpable at crucial moments in the contemporary stories of "Red Road" and "Fish Tank." There, Arnold's brand of grittiness leads at certain points down alleys of anachronism. When the adult Heathcliff is introduced, one character reacts to him by asking "What the" you-know-what. Not something someone in England during the 1840s would seem likely to say, offhand, regardless of how dirty and grimy and mucky their circumstances were. While hardly a hopeless misfire, "Wuthering Heights" is my least favorite Andrea Arnold film thus far ... which only makes me more eager for the next one, as it happens.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.