I should most definitely begin this review by saying that I have never read the Emily Bronte classic, published in 1847, on which this film is based. Not only that, but my scant knowledge of the Romantic literary movement left me only to assume that love somehow played a part in Wuthering Heights. So please note that any opinions on this matter are completely unsupported by the original material. All that being said, I found this movie a quiet, contemplative meditation on rejection and the violence that can come from taking away the slightest bit of acceptance. Filmmaker Andrea Arnold shows a brooding, teaming portrait of a lost love affair, and while there are several problems, she kept my interest, often my intrigue.
Should any philistines such as myself read this, and remain unaware of the story. A hardy but poor farm owner comes across a boy in the moors of Northern England. He takes him in and baptizes him Heathcliff, hoping to forge a strict but welcoming home for him. But Heathcliff is roundly rebuffed and shunned by those around him. All except Catherine. They form a bonded friendship through their youth, only to have it devastatingly tested when a more landed family takes an interest in her affairs. Then other things happen of interest. When I lay out the story like this, it does have the air of English gentry melodrama. Though not all of that was left behind in this most recent film adaptation, Arnold told the story in such a way that it plainly exhibited its timelessness.
Arnold chose to specifically heighten, and maybe even exagerrate, the rough lives of even a working farm. The film contained a very tactile and textured nature, showing the character touching many things meaningfully. Set high up in the beaten, rainy moors, it did not shy away from muck, filth, and blood. In my viewing of this story, I found it to espouse a specific, almost soft, form of brutality. From the abuse of the family, the weather, and everything else in between, life is shown to walk a very fine line between oppressive and comforting. Through gorgeous wide setting shots and close perspective shots through cracks in the walls, Arnold told this story as people living tiny lives dominated by the enormous space around them.
Nature plays a specific role in this film, maybe not as a character, but as a main theme; both nature around them and the nature of the Heathcliff and Catherine themselves. For all the grabbing of soil, sliding in mud, and standing in rain, nature never deters or hampers them in their uncommitted affair. They are wild, restless, senseless beings who rally, push and pull each other apart. Arnold showed them as tempests, spinning together while destroying much around them. While on occasion it did slip into melodrama, I found it fascinating to watch their complicated dance play out.
My praise doesn’t come with out my problems. While I roundly enjoyed the minimalist take on what I am told is a fairly wordy novel, the pacing was uneven feeling as if it stayed too long in one place, not long enough in others. There were leaps in time, which did not seem to affect the main characters, until they jumped in age, not looking terribly close to their former selves. Most of the time, the handheld, jumpy cinematography gave the narrative a private feel, but plenty of instances arose when it became distracting as it panned crazily about. I also wonder whether it catered to those familiar with the book, as several plot points took a decidedly long time for them to be fully explained.
Nevertheless, I am glad to have seen it. The rolling, untamed hillsides set a wonderful frame on this primal love story. Heathcliff often seems undeserving of sympathy, until you take Arnold’s scope and see his small life, surrounded by enormity, and rejected by the one tenderness life gave him.