Dir. Andrea Arnold, UK, 2011, 129 mins
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson
Review by Carol Allen
Having built her reputation on stories set in the gritty reality of contemporary Britain with Fish Tank and Red Road, writer/director Arnold now attempts to bring that same harsh sense of reality to an often sentimentalised and much loved classic tale, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
The traditional approach to dramatizing the story is to treat the relationship between Heathcliff, the boy taken into the Earnshaw family and abused by them and Cathy, the young daughter of the house, as a great love story.Arnold has chosen to centre the film on Heathcliff and emphasise his position as the outsider in the rural, early nineteenth century Yorkshire society into which he is adopted. It’s a promising and creative take on the tale and her casting of two young black actors (both making their acting debuts) to play the role is a good way of doing that. Solomon Glave as the young Heathcliff is rather good. James Howson however, although he makes an impressive entrance as the older Heathcliff, returning to the scene of his childhood to reclaim Cathy, is more that somewhat wooden. And apart from the colour of their skin, the two actors have little physical resemblance.
Arnold also fails to carry through the implications of her idea. A reasonable justification is given for having a black boy turn up in Victorian Yorkshire (“stowaway runaway slave found living on the streets of Liverpool”, someone mutters), but one would have expected a black person in Victorian Yorkshire to have caused rather more comment and curiosity than he does. The only reference to his ethnicity is the racial insults he is subjected to by Hindley (Lee Shaw), Cathy’s brother.
Arnold has chosen to portray the Earnshaw family as living a hard and simple life in an old farmhouse as opposed to a Gothic mansion, heightening the contrast with the civilised comfort of the Linton household, into which adult Cathy marries. Again not a bad idea, but in her quest for gritty reality, the scenes in the Earnshaw house are sometimes so dark you can’t work out what is going on. The shooting style overall she and cinematographer Robbie Ryan have adopted in this same quest often make the film difficult to follow, as in very close shots of people running and in other action, which are uncomfortably like Blair Witch, while the over realistic howling wind on the soundtrack, not only sometimes drowns out the dialogue, but comes over like a sound recordist’s worst nightmare. The team are also rather over fond of shots of birds in the sky though the shooting of the bleakYorkshire landscape is good.
Returning to the performances, Shannon Beer as young Cathy, a simple farmer’s daughter, is unappealingly sulky and rather lumpen. Far from being the wild child of Bronte’s imagination, she’s just a bit dull. It’s difficult to believe that she would grow up to become the much more delicate looking older Cathy. Scodelario in that role has limited opportunities and is somewhat colourless, seeming a lot of the time more like a delicate Victorian young lady having an attack of the vapours than the willful and rebellious woman the story demands. The strength of the passionate link between Heathcliff and Cathy is unconvincing, the narrative is weak and the dialogue often a bit banal. One of the most effective performances in the film comes from Shaw (also making his acting debut incidentally) as Heathcliff’s tormentor, the brutal Hindley.
This film has a good try at breathing new life into an old tale but the very strong Yorkshire accents and the startlingly different style from the traditional will probably put off the Bronte fanbase, while the muddled narrative and the distinctly dour storytelling makes it a bit of a downer for general audiences.