Review: Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is beautiful, but disappointing

Andrea Arnold has only made a few films so far, but both “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” demonstrate a clear sense of voice and style.  She’s got a great visual sense, and she is very good at creating a sense of dramatic tension, drawn out in some cases to the point where it’s almost unbearable.  I would have happily gone to see anything she brought to the festival this year, but the notion of her tackling a piece of material like “Wuthering Heights” was particularly appealing.  It seemed like a strong dramatic place for her to start, and I had no doubt she would find a way to make it her own.

Having now seen the film, I’m not surprised that the Venice Film Festival gave a special award to the cinematography by Robbie Ryan, who also shot her two previous films.  His work here is spectacular, and there is a tactile quality to the film that goes beyond anything 3D could offer.  The problem is that aside from the cinematography and that sensual quality it lends to the film, there’s nothing else about “Wuthering Heights” that I can recommend.  You might as well re-title the picture “Andrea Arnold’s Photography Exhibit On Themes From ‘Wuthering Heights’,” because this is a still life.  It’s a non-motion picture.  It is dramatically inert, and almost baffling in the way it misses the mark.

It doesn’t matter if you’re familiar or unfamiliar with the source material, because Arnold and her screenwriter Olivia Hetreed have boiled this down to its essences, and that’s all there is.  It’s frustrating because the approach sort of seems to work at the start of the film.  There’s no score at all in the entire movie, and natural sounds are all she uses.  The film begins with the adult Heathcliff (James Howson) in a room, bruised and bloodied, staring at the relics of a childhood spent there, already crippled by grief.  Right away, it’s interesting that Arnold is the first filmmaker to depict Heathcliff as a black man, and Howson’s attempts to batter himself senseless suggest great emotional violence ahead.

We then jump back in time to the stormy night when the young Heathcliff (played by the phenomenally named Solomon Glave) was brought home by Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton).  Earnshaw found him in the street, and he acts out of Christian charity.  Right away, it’s obvious the rest of the family doesn’t share the urge, with the exception of young Cathy (Shannon Beer), who is immediately fascinated by the dark-skinned nearly-silent youth.  The boy has no name, so it’s Mr. Earnshaw who dubs him Heathcliff, and he and Cathy are raised together.  What begins as curious companionship gradually develops into something more, and while they never act on it, it’s undeniable.  Cathy’s brother Hindley hates Heathcliff right away, and for a time, it’s unclear whether or not he can fit into family life in this remote location.

It’s not until Cathy meets young Edgar Linton (Jonny Powell), an heir to a wealthy family, that things finally come to a head.  The Earnshaws want Cathy to marry well, and it’s obvious from the start that Edgar is interested.  When Heathcliff overhears Cathy talking about Edgar’s proposal, he vanishes.  When he finally returns, years later, he’s grown into the Heathcliff we glimpsed at the beginning of the film, played now by Howson, and he’s got a plan.  He wants revenge on Hindley (Lee Shaw), he wants to see Cathy’s face again, and then he plans to kill himself.

Doesn’t quite work out that way, and from the moment he sees the grown-up Cathy, played by Kaya Scodelario, they’re both on a collision course with doom and pain and suffering, and they take down everyone around them, including Edgar (James Northcote), Linton’s younger sister Isabella (Nichola Burley), and anyone else who stands between them.  And while all of this sounds very dramatic, and it follows the general outline of Emily Bronte’s novel, Arnold’s movie is positively glacial.  It feels like there are maybe 50 lines of dialogue in the whole film, and a good 2/3 of it is just the kids mooning around out on the moors, looking at nature, circling each other with no resolution.  Neither one of the young actors are particularly strong, and while it feels like Arnold is chasing a sort of raw, natural feel for her film, particularly with the choice to use no score at all, it just doesn’t work.  It’s a difficult sit, no matter how patient a viewer you are.  

This utter lack of momentum doesn’t really change even when Heathcliff shows up as an adult, and Howson’s performance is a blank.  This Heathcliff, young or old, is just a mute presence, and there’s no real sense of why anyone would be drawn to him, or what he’s feeling or thinking at any given moment.  He barely registers, even when he’s the only one in a scene.  Scodelario is better, and she’s got a few moments where her Cathy sort of comes to life, but any energy she gives off in a scene just vanishes into the abyss of charisma that is Howson.  He gives nothing back, even in the film’s few moments where real fireworks erupt.  Even if restraint is the goal here, it’s just too much.  I like Scodelario on the original British “Skins,” and on that show, her character Effie was silent for almost the entire series.  The difference is that Scodelario still managed to communicate volumes with her silence, and on the few occasions the character spoke, it counted.  Here, Howson mumbles his dialogue when he does speak, and it never feels like he’s actually speaking to another character.

I feel just as bad about this review as I did about the review earlier for “A Dangerous Method,” and in both cases, these are filmmakers I like quite a bit.  Hell, I revere Cronenberg.  I just feel like they each made basic choices at the initial stages of putting the films together that crippled the end result, and in both cases, too much restraint is the problem.  I don’t mind slow films.  I don’t mind quiet films.  Some of my favorite movies are exercises in holding back, but for that to pay off, we need to feel what it that’s being restrained.  It’s only restraint if you can sense a passion that is simmering, aching for release.  Arnold’s film is so held back that it eventually collapses under its own precious energy.  Look at the picture I used to illustrate this article.  That’s one of three official stills for use for the press from the TIFF site, and it sort of sums up the approach here.  Looking at that, do you get any sense of what her approach to “Wuthering Heights” might be, or is it just a pretty picture of part of a horse?  As gorgeous as this film is, frame by frame, it never comes to life, and the result is a museum piece at best.

“Wuthering Heights” does not currently have a US distributor.