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The Foster Home Straight

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Agatha Nitecka/Oscilloscope Laboratories

With “Wuthering Heights,” Andrea Arnold confirms herself as the most important directing talent to emerge from Britain since Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes. She has also achieved this via an unconventional path: by winning an Oscar with a live-action short film (2003’s “Wasp”), working under the restrictions of Dogme (2006’s “Red Road”), building a movie around a pregnant teenager found having a screaming argument with her boyfriend in a train station (Katie Jarvis from 2009’s “Fish Tank”) and now “Wuthering Heights.” Once again, Ms. Arnold has crafted something amazing by working primarily with nonprofessional actors and shooting on location, this time on the Yorkshire moors.

In true English fashion, the main comment on the film when it came out in Britain last fall was that the actors playing Heathcliff (Solomon Glave as a child and James Howson as an adult) are black. Never mind that Emily Brontë’s novel specifically refers to Heathcliff as a “dark-skinned Gypsy” and a “Lascar” (meaning someone from India), the idea that one of the major characters of English literature is not white was a shock that skewed its entire reception. But with this simple measure, Ms. Arnold and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed get the measure of the entire plot.

For when young Heathcliff is rescued from the streets of Liverpool in the 1770s by Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) and brought to his remote farmhouse to be brought up as his son, the entire Earnshaw household recoils from the black child — everyone, that is, except Catherine (Shannon Beer as a child and Kaya Scodelario as an adult), who takes Heathcliff under her wing and shows him the treasures she has found on the moors — feathers and stones. They spend days alone playing on the wild hills; and when Heathcliff is injured, Catherine sucks the blood from the wound. Heathcliff is in love with her from the first moment, but never says anything. How could he?

He says other things though, most shockingly when he is called a “n----r” at the house of the Earnshaws’ only neighbors, the Lintons. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian explained it perfectly when he said that the film — and its astonishing cinematography by Robbie Ryan — seems to peel back Brontë’s novel to the unpolished story underneath. This sense of cinema vérité soaks the film in mud and misery. You can almost smell the filth of the barn, or the sweat on a horse’s shanks or the dew on the grass when Catherine’s sister-in-law goes into labor outdoors, held between two servant women and screaming like an animal. The unloved son born that day, Hareton (Michael Hughes), grows up to hang dogs from tree branches by their collars. They hang in space for a moment, as if unbelieving, and only then begin to kick and fight. The camera cuts at these moments, but the casual cruelty and hate-filled atmosphere long lingers in the mind. The recent adaptations of “Pride & Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” — which drew praise for their period realism — are antique dollhouses compared to this.

When Catherine and Heathcliff grow up and switch actors, the feeling of the movie echoes the distance between them and never quite recovers. The raw and unselfconscious behavior of the children has curdled past love into something else — something horrible. Part of this could be due to the uncredited decision to overdub Mr. Howson’s voice with someone else. But the weakness of the relationship between the adult Catherine and Heathcliff somehow doesn’t weaken the film as a whole. Mr. Howson himself, a convicted drug dealer who was found in an open audition, has since February been committed against his will in a psychiatric hospital after being convicted of racially abusing his ex-girlfriend and their baby daughter. In choosing him to play the tortured Heathcliff, Ms. Arnold might have gotten closer to more than one truth.


Opens on Oct. 5 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, based on a screen story by Olivia Hetreed and the novel by Emily Brontë; director of photography, Robbie Ryan; edited by Nicolas Chaudeurge; production design by Helen Scott; costumes by Steven Noble; produced by Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae and Kevin Loader; released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Kaya Scodelario (Older Cathy), James Howson (Older Heathcliff), Solomon Glave (Young Heathcliff), Shannon Beer (Young Cathy), Steve Evets (Joseph), Oliver Milburn (Mr. Linton), Paul Hilton (Mr. Earnshaw), Simone Jackson (Nelly), Lee Shaw (Hindley), Amy Wren (Frances), Nichola Burley (Isabella Linton), James Northcote (Edgar Linton), Jonathan Powell (Young Edgar) and Eve Alice Coverley Ainscough (Young Isabella).


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