Andrea Arnold’s wonderful 2011 adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel begins its one-week engagement at the Nuart Theatre today.
Tree branches batting against a window. Clouds gathering for rain. A boy leaning in to smell a girl’s hair. The rhythm of horseback riding. Children running through a field. A fleeting gaze of desire. These are all shots that stuck with me throughout and after Wuthering Heights. This has less to do with the aesthetic pleasure of their construction—of which there is plenty—than how director/cowriter Andrea Arnold and her filmmaking team stir our various senses in the narrative. I find myself incredibly drawn to the film’s employment of the camera, its ability to capture beauty in the landscapes as well as complexities in the characters.
Wuthering Heights is probably the best adaptation you’ll see all year. I’m not saying that because it follows every facet of Brontë’s novel to a T; if that’s what you expect out of an adaptation, you’re probably better off waiting for a three-part film of a 300-page novel (oh wait, that’s The Hobbit.). Rather, it’s a fully cinematic evocation, one that runs so deep you’re likely to forget it was a book in the first place. Eschewing all literary pretenses so tantamount to most films adapted from esteemed novels—for instance, voiceover narration and static, lush cinematography—this Wuthering Heights is muted, subjective, and painful.
The phrase “overwhelmingly sensual” entered the conversation I had about the film with a group of colleagues after a special advance screening at Westwood’s Billy Wilder Theater last weekend. This unmistakable sensual quality emerges through the camera, and I cannot help but continue to try and explore how the cinematography accomplishes this. Atmosphere is carefully considered: landscape shots and production design alternately invoke richness and sparseness. It is just as easy to feel in awe of the fog rolling over the impossibly green hills as it is to feel struck by the creakiness and claustrophobia of the country home. The camera often travels with the characters in a given scene, but it cuts in to focus on intimate details. The slow pace of the film, which builds carefully across scenes and acts, creates a feeling of being absorbed in both the characters’ perspectives and the beauty surrounding them.
Wuthering Heights is unconventionally shot in 4:3 aspect ratio—what is more often called “full frame” or “Academy ratio.” It’s a square frame instead of a rectangle, which allows the position of figures within and against the landscapes to take on an incredible dynamic. The square beautifully articulates vertical, horizontal, and diagonal configurations. Considering that many films with landscape photography opt for the long, widescreen ratio of 2.35:1—think The Lord of the Rings or any similar contemporary epic—Wuthering Heights is all the more striking.
The story is of little concern to Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights, which might seem strange, the film being an adaptation. And it isn’t necessarily an interesting adaptation, narratively speaking, because it doesn’t take many risks. Rather, the film uses the story as a kind of template, a base structure through which to really explore its own space. In this sense, Wuthering Heights is constantly crossing a series of thresholds: exterior spaces, interior spaces, and subjective spaces of the characters’ sensual experiences make up the bulk of the film. In addition, the story is rendered elliptically. Time passes by periods of days, months, and years, though at times these jumps are not immediately discernible: instead of traditional title cards, changes in costume, makeup, and environment clue us in. The psychologies of the characters are revealed primarily through the camera’s traversal through spaces. Dialogue takes a back seat.
There’s an adage in adaptation: don’t bother adapting something unless you have a good reason to. That is to say, it’s not good enough to merely want to create a new version of a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel; you can only “succeed” by doing something the adaptations that came before you were unable to do. In this sense, Wuthering Heights is a phenomenal success, as it uses its source material to create a fully defined cinematic experience. It offers pleasures on the level of tones, surfaces, and emotions. It forgoes words for glances, discussions for touches.
Arnold and her filmmaking team open literature up, transforming the text into a sensual—not to mention sensational—visualization. Wuthering Heights offers a powerful counterpoint to the proclamation “it just wasn’t as good as the book.”
Minor spoilers below. The movie’s plot is a little different from the novel.
A few days ago I saw the new British film adaptation of Wuthering Heights (new to this country, that is—it came out last year abroad, and is only just arriving in Los Angeles). The easiest thing to say about the movie, shot on location in the Yorkshire Dales, is that it’s gorgeous. The word that kept coming to mind was “windswept,” but also “weather-beaten” and other nature-ish words that equally get at the palette of the film and the way the entirety of the place the characters live in looks like it’s been around for centuries, long since blown free of the layers of sediment and richness and vitality that once were there until all that remains is the bleakness onscreen. Which is not to say the landscape isn’t beautiful—it is, but it’s a harsh beauty, the look of a place that’s unforgiving, even punishing. It’s a place humans have to struggle in.
The movie is about the things that anchor us in life. It’s a sister film to something like The Last Picture Show, which shows its characters trying to reconcile where they grew up (where they’re “from,” in a profound way) with the dwindling connections they feel to it. When the young Heathcliff leaves home, the scene is perfectly shot: he walks off into a distance that’s utterly dark because whatever else is out there is inconsequential. And once he returns we never learn where he was, how much time has passed, how he earned his money. And then he buys the farm at the end. He’s done fighting it. This place is him. He comes from the hills and the mud and the rocks, even if he was found in Liverpool as a child. I pictured a cone of existence hanging over the farm in the shape of an interrogation light. Nothing outside it matters. And for a lot of the film wide establishing shots are resisted, though plenty of close-ups bring attention to the small things of the world. And it’s just wonderfully photographed. In shots like one near the end of movie of Heathcliff lying on his back spread-eagle in a field from above—echoing similar shots throughout—it’s hard to think that he and the land are two separate entities.
Heathcliff can’t change who he is. He can leave it for a time, dress it up in more expensive clothes, but he can’t change it. For all his confidence, his maturity, his wealth, the only thing that matters is Catherine. In some ways, the story’s emotions feel adolescent in how the depth of Heathcliff and Catherine’s connection doesn’t seem earned by the extent of its on-screen development. But I don’t think there’s anything immature about being so given over to another person that he or she is your world. The emotions here are raw, pure, and unconcerned with justifying themselves. I thought of Melancholia and The Tree of Life, but that may be superficial (that cinematography…), but then again Wuthering Heights is about the world as it’s experienced through one person’s eyes. I want to call the movie a modernist character study. The Heathcliffs, young and old, are masters of suggesting multitudes that exist behind faces that often don’t say much, or anything. The story isn’t as emotionally engaging as I wanted—or as I thought I needed, anyway—but when the plot jumps forward to Heathcliff’s return, that changes, or maybe it’s just beside the point. I thought of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, how it’s a given that a guy falls for a girl unequivocally, with every ounce of himself. But there’s more to it. Heathcliff and Catherine grew up together; in this story it just is that they’re companions, and that truth quietly expanding to include love as they grow older is believably organic. In a landscape this stark, a big show of emotion would be out of place.
There’s something mythic about the movie—that’s what’s like Melancholia and The Tree of Life. The solitude of the farm raises the characters and relationships and the land to the level of myth: a smoldering lover; a married woman in love with him, the outsider; a husband powerless to intervene. That Catherine dies because Heathcliff left seems…but it’s not that he left, it’s that he married someone else. Catherine survived the first time, but a second—Heathcliff with someone else—is too much. It’s almost teenager-ish, but it works. There’s something nearly juvenile about the story’s streamlining, but by grounding its first half in the burgeoning passions of youth and keeping the characters so young, it works. Maybe the mythic-ness is why the story gets by without having enough emotion. They were too young to articulate their feelings, but once they’re grown up all it takes is one look. There’s a moment, I think during Heathcliff’s first trip to the Linton house, when he arrives and Catherine looks up and sees him and is unable to control the smile that spreads across her face. There. That’s the movie.
A version of this post originally appeared on mangetstowherehesgoing.tumblr.com.
James Gilmore is currently an M.A. student in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. He received his B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of South Carolina. His research chiefly focuses on how films and other forms of media work to construct, critique, or challenge perceptions of the Nation. He also writes about genre, visual analysis, adaptation, and film history. You can follow his mostly sarcastic observations on Twitter @Jim_on_Film.
J.M. Olejarz is a film student at UCLA and a coeditor of the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD. For more of his thoughts on movies, TV, and a glut of miscellany, see mangetstowherehesgoing.tumblr.com.