Movie Review: Wuthering Heights (2012)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

I remember reading about this film years ago, as there was something of a furor surrounding Andrea Arnold’s decision to cast a man of color in the classic role of Heathcliff, a part usually played by a white dude even though he was written as “dark-skinned” and likely Romani. I never really loved Wuthering Heights but I applauded Arnold’s casting and was intrigued to see her version of the story. Set in an isolated farm house along northern England’s moors, the film uncovers the intense, complex relationship between Catherine Earnshaw (Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario) and her sort-of-adoptive brother Heathcliff (Solomon Glave and James Howson). A homeless black boy, Heathcliff was found by Cathy’s father and taken into their home because it was “the Christian thing to do,” but he is never fully accepted by his new family or their neighbors due to his unknown background and somewhat wild ways. Though they are inseparable as children, Cathy eventually is pulled into the well-to-do world of their neighbors the Lintons, and when she agrees to marry their son Edgar, Heathcliff runs away in despair. He returns after a few years a grown man, and endeavors to once again become an integral part of Cathy’s life while also seeking revenge on her hateful older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

Filled with despicable people who turn everything into a life-or-death melodrama, Wuthering Heights is actually kind of ridiculous depending how one looks at it. The only thing I really remembered about the book was that I felt bad for Heathcliff even though he was a jerk, I hated everyone else, and I had to make a family tree to keep all the characters straight. Also the frame story was unnecessary. Arnold wisely cuts the frame story, leaves out some characters, and ends her film before the events of the book actually end, thus trimming the plot down to its basic components: two people who are unhealthily obsessed with each other. She casts inexperienced unknowns to varying success, and zeroes in on small, intimate moments to tease out her story. It is completely told from Heathcliff’s point of view, and his perceived “otherness” is clearly delineated. He overhears snippets of conversations and cautiously watches others’ lives unfold, all from a removed standpoint. After he runs away from his enforced baptism, he is never fully included in the life of the Earnshaw household, always made aware that he doesn’t belong- for reasons of his skin color, unnerving silence, and unseemly origins.

The real star of this story has always been its memorable setting, the vast and mysterious moors in which Cathy and Heathcliff roam as children. Arnold’s thoughtful handheld camera and quiet takes depict a beautiful, tragic landscape with foggy skies and howling winds. She takes her time with the narrative so that she can linger on these natural elements, and the viewer is invited to consider how these breathtaking but lonely settings influence and reflect the protagonists. I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly engaged by the love story- mostly because I don’t really like any of the characters- but I was wholly taken in by the visuals and by Arnold’s pensive style of storytelling. The cast is capable (though the children aren’t great), and the casting of a man of color in the role really emphasizes the theme of difference and ostracization so central to the development of Heathcliff’s character. Also James Howson is like, a total babe. Mhmmmm.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Unsure! Maybe the other recent Brontë adaptation, Jane Eyre?

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