Review by Richard Wilcocks:
Hareton disturbed me the most in this film based on Wuthering Heights. Dour before his time, he appears now and then in the early scenes, a dirty blonde-haired urchin, to gawp at visitors, or to witness violent abuse from the sidelines. In one scene, he is seen hanging up dogs by their collars, and we know where he got that from. The depiction of Hareton is one of the pointers to the ‘cruelty breeds cruelty’ message in Andrea Arnold’s film – and in Emily Brontë’s novel, if that can be seen, glibly, as a straight deliverer of messages. Considerable respect has been shown to the original: a fair amount of thought and research must have gone into finding out what might have been in Emily Brontë’s mind and how she saw her characters, and into the late eighteenth century in Yorkshire. Arnold has a brutally realistic vision, similar to the one she employed in her previous films Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009) with their poor housing estates and tower blocks - and their 'outsider' protagonists. All the artefacts – stoneware jars, spades for digging out peat and so on – look as if they have been borrowed from a folk museum, the costumes appear to be authentic, and Heathcliff is black.
All perfectly credible. In the novel he is described variously as “a little Lascar” and “a dark-skinned gypsy in appearance” and he was found in the slaving port of Liverpool. The Lascars of the time were seamen who had been recruited from places like Bengal or Yemen, with thousands living in England in the time of the Brontës, many with white British wives. Gypsies, with distant roots in India, had been travelling around Europe for centuries. More to the point, Emily was well-acquainted with the evils of the Slave Trade (abolished in 1807, just after the action of Wuthering Heights) through her father, who had been helped out as a poor student at Cambridge by no less than William Wilberforce. She would have known about the magnificent Yorkshire mansions built with the wealth created on slave-powered plantations in Jamaica, Harewood House near Leeds for example, and about the Sill family of Dentdale, which owned two ships called The Dent and The Pickering. The Sills were said to have kept slaves instead of regular servants at West House, their large, colonial-style base in the Dales, now renamed Whernside Manor and redesignated as an outdoor pursuits centre. It is just a walk away from Cowan Bridge - I have done it. And the Sills must have known cotton magnate and pillar of the Anglican Church John Sidgwick, whose young children were such a tribulation for Charlotte Brontë during her time as a governess at Stone Gappe...
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The unknown James Howson from Leeds was cast as the adult Heathcliff, with the equally unknown Solomon Glave as his young version. We do not find out which language he speaks when he first arrives, because there is very little by way of speaking in the whole film. It is not dialogue-free: a few sentences and phrases from the novel are employed, rather like the quotes a candidate might fish out for an A-level essay, with more of them in the film’s second half, after Heathcliff’s return, than in the first. At other times, the words which the characters use seem to have grown from improvisation sessions, giving the action a kind of Ken Loach feel at times. Those words are more brutal than in, say, Loach’s Kes, and come as quite a shock to those who are accustomed to dialogue which has been passed through a filter. To leave out most of Emily Brontë’s beautiful prose – and the second half of her story, as usual – are bold moves which a few literary folk might find outrageous. I can fully understand the opinions of those who might describe the film as ‘coarse and disagreeable’, but then the structure of the novel does not match the needs of the cinema. Unlike Cary Fukunaga, who retained as many of Charlotte’s words as possible in his Jane Eyre, Andrea Arnold has gone in an opposite direction, because she has decided not to bother with conventional costume dramas.
She does not go down the route of, for example, Penny Woolcock, who used a large number of Shakespeare’s words in her 1997 BBC Macbeth on the Estate, in which residents of the run-down Ladywood Estate in Birmingham together with a core of trained actors created an effective screen drama (all baseball bats and drug dealers) which brought out the violence and the moral issues in a classic text and related it to today. This Wuthering Heights relies on cinematography, the impact of fresh and young actors who have not been to drama school (eat your heart out, Stanislavski), an authentic period feel and a powerful, often startling harshness. Arnold has said that she “had to pick out the things that had resonance to me” and that she wanted to give the children plenty of time at the beginning.
This was a good move, because the children are by far the most interesting. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer have “not acted before” (hasn't their school got a drama club?), but manage to be fascinating, holding everything together for an hour. Full marks to Arnold there. The story is told through sounds and sights: we see the boy’s amazement and disorientation when he arrives, Cathy’s warm smile – the only warmth – a feather brushing a cheek, his hand on the horse’s rump when he rides behind her, his smelling of her hair, the weals on his back after a beating by Joseph, her mouth as she licks the blood from them, their crude and muddy sexual fumbling out on the moors. Sensual imagery with a vengeance! Raw teenage emotion in our faces! And I loved Shannon Beer’s wavering, charming rendition of Barbara Allen. She’s a proper wild, wicked slip of a girl.
Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan won the Golden Osella Award at the last Venice Film Festival for Best Cinematography, deservedly. His low shots through clumps of sedge and his panoramas of the moors (filming took place on the bleaker areas around Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales) are stunning, but what is especially memorable is his selection of close-ups of the insects, flowers and small creatures to be found in the heather and under the bilberries. I was looking out for harebells, but did not notice any. Perhaps they were the wrong kind of flower here. The wind sounded right – I recognise that wind from personal experience – as it battered the microphone relentlessly. The wind seems never to stop. Such a contrast to the romantic music which Sam Goldwyn loved and which never stopped for Olivier and Oberon in William Wyler's 1939 version, the music which prompted the emotions for the audience!
I was appropriately taken aback by the images of slaughtered animals – a sheep has its jugular severed and a rabbit has its neck broken. I am hoping and trusting that Isabella’s dog was wearing some kind of harness when it was filmed being attached to a hook.
The creatures of the wild moors a couple of centuries ago have a strong present-times feel, because casting in this way has put racial prejudice in the forefront. Heathcliff is full of revengeful passions because he has been racially abused. The violent skinhead Hindley (Lee Shaw) is notably foul-mouthed when he does speak, like an adherent of some far-right organisation, and the enforced baptism scene shows that the church used to be pretty short on tender loving care when it came to new dark-skinned members of the congregation. The West Yorkshire accents are just right, and could be heard in many of the streets of 2011. I include my own street in Leeds.
In the second half, the adult Heathcliff (James Howson) does not spend long on relishing his revenge on Hindley, but that is not the only disappointment. Both James Howson and Kaya Scodelario, who plays the adult Cathy, bear only token resemblances to their child counterparts, and have far less presence. Cathy is not differentiated from Isabella enough, and seems to be unrelated to her younger self, which can not be explained away by her sojourn in the sophistication of Thrushcross Grange, where manners (and the mild weather) are always better. It is always raining at Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff seems clumsier and less sympathetic, a fact which is not helped by James Howson’s lack of acting experience (more forgivable in Solomon Glave), and the close-up shots of flowers and insects which sustained the first half become tiresome because they are repeated too often. Ironically, the increased amount of dialogue also becomes irritating, because it is not what we have become accustomed to. James Northcote’s acting as Edgar is fine and faultless, but seems out of place here, as if he has stepped out of another film.
And that other film could almost be the 1939 version which is at the other end of the spectrum. Still, the Andrea Arnold version is visually and acoustically stunning, ground breaking, worth seeing, and could even draw some in the audience towards reading the book, to discover all that dialogue. And all those harebells.