By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) -
It’s hard these days go get too excited about any classic English literature adaptation. Even the very best seem to have that Masterpiece Theater vibe that is as classy as all hell, but tends to run the stories together in your mind. Sense & Sensibility is the one with Jane Eyre in it, right? Didn’t Mr. Darcy glower his way through Emma? And what’s this, your brain is telling you about Pride & Prejudice having zombies in it?
Surely that’s not right
Wuthering Heights tells the familiar story of Heathcliff, an orphan boy taken in by a kindly gentleman and raised as his own son. This hardly endears him to the man’s genetic son, Hindley, and finds himself further at odds with him when he starts a wild young romance with his sister, Catherine. When the father dies, and Catherine gets drawn into high society, Heathcliff runs away. What happens when this man, now with a substantial chip on his shoulder, returns after making his fortune? Is he pursuing love or revenge, or perhaps both?
Director Andrea Arnold first caught my eye with the beautifully shot, thematically difficult Fish Tank, and she brings the same skill to this very different project. She make a good call in stripping down the novel to its bare essentials- the psychology of Heathcliff and his tragic romance with Catherine. Roughly half the book is discarded, but that makes for a tighter, more focused film.
Another creative decision she makes just makes sense. Heathcliff is described in the novel as “dark-complexioned”, so she casts black actors Solomon Glave and James Howson as his young and adult selves. Unsurprisingly, the thirteen previous adaptations of the material missed that little piece of character description.
Nice try, but no.
The performances are strong all around, especially considering the multitude of close-ups and relative lack of dialogue. Glave in particular is a young talent to keep an eye on. The real star, though, is Arnold’s direction. She opts for natural sound and a beautifully edited array of close and wide shots to bring the story alive in a way that the usual costume drama just can’t.
The pace is pretty deliberate, which suits the slow burn of the plot as it rises up to the drama that ends the second act. Still, if you’re going to build things up so slowly, you’d better create some real impact when the drama does come. Arnold doesn’t quite pull that off.
James Howson generally does a great job being mysterious and sexithreatening (that’s a word, right?) as adult Heathcliff, but when tragedy does strike, his grieving process sure hops back and forth over the “over the top” line.
This film is a gorgeous, unconventional adaptation of an absolute classic of literature. Even if you’re familiar with the story, you should give this a look purely for the new approach it takes.
Take a Drink: every time someone’s a dick to Heathcliff
Take a Drink: every time an animal is used for subtext
Do a Shot: every time someone drops the ‘n’ word