Venice

Venice 2011: ‘Wuthering Heights’ review

★★☆☆☆

If you have been waiting for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) – which screened today at the 2011 Venice Film Festival – because you’re anticipating something akin to Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), full of 19th century banter and longing looks across windswept hills, then prepare yourself for disappointment.

Almost the entire focus of Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is on the beautiful and sometimes savage backdrop of the Yorkshire moors. Arnold has mentioned wanting to “honour the essence” of Emily Brontë’s novel and she has done this by so closely binding the animus of both Heathcliff and Cathy to their natural setting that the human characters become intertwined and irrevocably linked to their surroundings.

We see birds of prey hovering in the vast grey skies above the moors, heather swaying in the breeze, boggy marshland and close-ups of horses’ manes and rabbits’ eyes. The often brutal treatment meted out by humans on other humans in the house is mirrored in the killing and culling of animals, which perhaps receive kinder treatment by being killed outright rather than being tortured and tormented like the protagonists of the film.

There is virtually no dialogue throughout Wuthering Heights, and what there is bears little resemblance to that of the book. (I don’t recall Heathcliff ever having said “fuck off you cunts” but then I haven’t read the book in a while.) The conversations are cursory and most communication is physical.

A taster of the physical and psychological violence to come is in the opening lines of the film: Mr Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) arrives home from Liverpool with young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) in tow. We hear Cathy’s voice calling out: “Did you get the whip?” When Heathcliff is stripped and washed by the housemaid we see old whiplash scars on his back (with more to come later).

Arnold has decided to cast a black Heathcliff, and this fits well with his Liverpudlian background (he’s almost certainly a runaway slave, speaking little English) and his position as an outsider on this remote Yorkshire homestead. And like the Heathcliff and Catherine graffiti on the wooden furniture and the various symbols carved onto walls and fixtures, we know that this tale of untamed passion will be etched permanently into the psyches of the lovers and those around them and that only pain and unhealed scars are in the offing.

The young Heathcliff immediately provokes fits of jealousy in Cathy’s brother Hindley (Lee Shaw), whose preferred term of endearment for Heathcliff is “nigger”. We see Heathcliff being baptised and running for the hills when he is asked to renounce the Devil and have his head shoved underwater. Young Cathy (Shannon Beer) is hot on his heels and they hang out on their beloved moors before returning to their father’s wrath and the farmhand vilifying them as pagans.

The story continues with Cathy meeting the Linton family and learning the civilised ways of society from them. When she decides to marry the insipid Edgar Linton, Heathcliff takes off, not to be seen for a few years. His return as a wealthy man with the sole purpose of seeing Cathy and taking revenge on those who have grieved him follow the book’s trajectory.

Like the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as the ill-fated lovers, this film ends with the death of Cathy, leaving Heathcliff alone with her ghost and his demons. Arnold states that she felt bad giving her film this unresolved finale, rather than ending with the more fitting death of Heathcliff followed by his burial alongside the love of his life. However, given that the alternative would have meant another couple of hours at the cinema, she left him alive and grieving. Do not expect a sequel.

At a little over two hours, Wuthering Heights can often make arduous viewing. With little dialogue – a lot of it often wooden – and virtually no music it is up to the viewer to take what they can from the rich imagery in the film. A lot of critics at the screening in Venice were exasperated by the wildlife scenes and it was not well received by the majority. However, if you are patient, what you will take with you from this film is the splendour of the moors and their inexorable link with the lovers of Wuthering Heights. Like the names carved into the wood, this film will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.

For more Venice Film Festival 2011 coverage, simply follow this link.

Jo-Ann Titmarsh