Don’t Be Mad: A Review Of Wuthering Heights (2011)

Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre hit theaters last year and and did something I thought no film would do: successfully adapt Jane Eyre. Around the same time I heard about a new version of Wuthering Heights in the works. The cast kept changing (Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, Gemma Arterton, Abbie Cornish, and yes, even Ed Westwick) and directors came and went as well (John Maybury, Peter Webber). I wondered if it would work on the same level and perhaps become a companion piece to Eyre: two adaptations of Brontë novels that, well, nailed it.

The funny thing is that I’ve come to believe Heights isn’t adaptable. Nevertheless it gets remade all the time, not unlike Eyre, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and everything Jane Austen committed to paper. It’s not from lack of trying.

With director Andrea Arnold at the helm you’d suppose her gritty style and a specialty for kitchen sink realism would be a perfect fit. Her previous feature, Fish Tank (2009), had an emotional intensity that makes you want to cover your eyes. Likewise, Emily Brontë’s book has the same effect and both are as mesmerizing as they are infuriating and uncomfortable.

Then I actually sat through Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. It’s none of those things. At 2 hours and 9 minutes, most of Heights is… silence. And landscapes. And extreme close-ups on faces and body parts of characters you end up feeling nothing for. For those who have never read the book or seen another adaptation I’m assuming this makes the film nearly unbearable. As someone who did know what was going on… well, it was still a challenge to watch.

There are some aspects of this version I found intriguing. It’s the first version that puts an emphasis on Catherine and Heathcliff as children, not as adults or, even worse, adults acting like children. People often overlook or forget that the characters in Heights are teenagers, regardless of being wealthy, getting married, having children or owning property. At the end of the day they are still kids, and most of the time they behave like hormones on legs.

It also addresses the reality of the characters’ family life, a place where neglect as well as physical, emotional and verbal abuse happen all of the time. As a result Catherine (Shannon Beer & Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave & James Howson) learn to relate to one another through anger and inflicting pain. It releases their emotions and binds them.

I don’t completely hate Heights‘ structure either. It’s exclusively from Heathcliff’s point of view, the film playing out like a compilation of his most profound and painful memories. Through his eyes we get an idea of how he perceives his life, surroundings and Catherine in particular. She is mainly a sensual object to him, a series of moments linked to touch, smells, taste and dizzying sights. There are moments where she has such a visceral effect on him (even as a prepubescent girl) that the soundtrack chokes out- all we can hear is his breathing or his heart beginning to pound.

The problem is that Heathcliff and his world are relentlessly morose and quiet, which is weird. As a literary character Heathcliff proves to be a man of many words, motivations and large displays of emotion. There are tears during a few scenes, but overall the film turns into a portrait of someone who has nothing to say or contribute besides lust and anger. Arnold also begins a pattern that drags as early as thirty minutes into the film: here’s a scene where not very much is happening, but it’s significant to this character. Really, watch. Also, here’s a random shot of a thistle. Or a moth. Or maybe a dead animal. You know: ambience.

A lot has been said about making Heathcliff of African descent this time around. I don’t think it’s that controversial of an idea. There has also been some debate about the treatment of animals in this film, although animal abuse is featured in the novel. This is the first adaptation I’ve seen that explores those moments. If you have a soft spot for birds, bunnies, sheep or puppy dogs, then please refrain from watching it.

I would say the same for someone who has issues with sexuality and the dead. This version of Heights features one of the most “intense” displays of grief since Quills (2000) or Ma Mère (2004).

In conclusion, I hate to report that I didn’t like this movie. To borrow a line from it: “Don’t be mad” (yes, the dialogue is sometimes that anachronistic). I will say it had potential, though.

Near the end of the film a Mumford & Sons song kicks in. Now, I’ve never heard a Mumford & Sons song before and all I know is that you either love them or hate them with the fire of a thousand suns. In my case this song was the best part of the film. It summed up one of those rare “everything is fucked” moments before the screen goes black, putting more punch in the last thirty seconds of the film than the two hours that preceded it.

It’s effective enough to say: yeah, the film is worth watching for that moment. You just have to endure a long, unsatisfying ride to get there.

UPDATE – 10/19/12: On second thought, I haven’t stopped thinking about this film over the past couple of days, which is usually a sign that something is up. Perhaps I need to watch it again.

I’ve begun to consider the idea of this Wuthering Heights being its own artifact, a recreation of what might have “really happened” (you know, if Heights wasn’t fiction). It removes the melodrama of the novel completely and pares down the hearsay to its bare bones, something plain and simple. It’s like a fabricated primary source.


One thought on “Don’t Be Mad: A Review Of Wuthering Heights (2011)

  1. well, i had to find out which song it was, of course. it was a song i hadn’t heard before. The enemy. i thought it sounded very effective. i guess i’ll have to wait till it comes to netflix to see it.

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