When it comes to period pieces, we’re often given the same, rigid formula of tight corsets, heightened melodrama and uninspired, artistic choices. There are some exceptions – the surprising “Farewell, My Queen” this summer instantly comes to mind– that successfully blend engaging stories with unique visual and stylistic flair. Director Andrea Arnold’s new adaptation of “Wuthering Heights”, though, is the rare occasion when a period piece is so overly stylized that all story and substance are tossed out the door.
How could the timeless Emily Brontë novel – dripping with passion and heartbreak since 1847 – be so lifeless and unremarkable on the silver screen? Well, maybe take away the shaky, out-of-focus camerawork and I could begin to tell you. As gorgeous as the cinematography can be – with astounding views of the stormy moors and tall grass flailing in the wind – it becomes problematic when there are nearly as many b-roll shots as those dedicated to the actual characters. If the audience took a drink every time there was a close-up of a budding flower or a creaky window, they would be plastered within 15 minutes.
One aspect I applaud Arnold’s interpretation for is her heavy emphasis on the racial tension of the story that has largely been ignored in previous “white-washed” adaptations. By casting newcomer James Howson – the first black Heathcliff in a “Wuthering Heights” film – the audience is given a new perspective of the struggle our tortured anti-hero faces. Beaten several times as a teenager (played by the young Solomon Glave) and disrespectfully referred to as the “n”-word, Arnold shows us some of the harsher aspects of the story that are almost nonexistent in other versions I’ve seen.
Unfortunately, Howson’s bland performance, which is comprised primarily of sulking and yelling, hinders us from truly understanding the dark, damaged character of Heathcliff. What Cathy (played by the overwhelmingly attractive Kaya Scodelario) sees in him is anybody’s guess, since she’s probably on-screen for about 20 minutes total before the film’s tragic yet muddled conclusion. The few pieces of dialogue are either cooed in unintelligible whispers or nonsensical yelling – as if speaking about love in the 19th century required one to be as incoherent as possible.
“Wuthering Heights” is primarily worth seeing for its technical finesse, as it is quite marvelous to both see and hear. I was instantly immersed from the opening scene with the film’s magnification of every little sound – from a screeching floorboard to a branch tapping against a windowsill. Arnold, with the help of cinematographer Robbie Ryan and editor Nicolas Chaudeurge, doesn’t merely create scenes, but comprehensive environments.
Overall, this was an unsuccessful attempt at giving “Wuthering Heights” a fresh, art house spin. It plainly comes across as an indie director trying way too hard to be inventive in her approach, but ultimately forgetting that there are characters we’re actually supposed to care about. There’s definitely a problem when the most emotion I felt during the entire movie didn’t come from any of the performances, but from the melancholy Mumford and Sons’ tune which plays over the closing credits.
Looking for the quintessential “Wuthering Heights”? Stick with the 1939 film adaption starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. With the best performance coming from its landscape, this new adaption cannot hold a candle to its stirring and romantic predecessor.