A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 2 1/2 of 4 stars.
British filmmaker Andrea Arnold deserves credit for originality and audacity with her radical remake of the classic novel “Wuthering Heights.”
But the Oscar-winning director/co-writer goes too far in her worthwhile efforts to strip away the frills and formality of the many previous adaptations. Best known for her gritty indie dramas “Fish Tank” and “Red Road,” Arnold becomes so focused on bringing the harsh wildness back to Emily Bronte’s 1847 melodrama that she turns her version into a dank, muddy slog.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve never been a fan of the Bronte sisters and their gothic romance stories. of wretched souls wallowing in their misery. But director Cary Fukunaga brought such fresh energy to his 2011 adaption of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” that I was willing to see Arnold’s new vision of “Wuthering Heights,” playing this weekend at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
While Fukunaga tapped two of today’s most promising young actors — Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender — to play the leads in his “Jane Eyre,” Arnold unfortunately stuck with her practice of casting first-timers for her “Wuthering Heights.” The inexperienced players just aren’t equal to the task of traversing the story’s unsettling emotional morass.
Set on an isolated farm on the moors of Yorkshire, Northern England, “Wuthering Heights” opens with an act of kindness, as the lord of the manor, Mr. Earnshaw ( Paul Hilton) a kind-hearted Christian but stern disciplinarian, takes in an abused and homeless youth whom he names Heathcliff.
The novel describes Heathcliff as a dark-skinned “exotic” of gypsy blood, but the role has traditionally been played by white actors. Arnold cast black actors Solomon Glave to play the adolescent Heathcliff and James Howson to portray him as a young man. It’s a smart choice, even if it makes the story more about racial discrimination than class prejudice.
Mr. Earnshaw’s expects his children to accept Heathcliff as their brother, but his racist son Hindley (Lee Shaw) violently and fervently hates the newcomer. His daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer as a youth, Kaya Scodelario of the British TV show “Skins” as a woman) develops an equally intense but much different relationship with Heathcliff. Although she initially spits in his face, They are kindred spirits, spending their days running wild on the moors together. Their bond is close, exclusive and ambiguous; Catherine and Heathcliff aren’t quite lovers but you couldn’t call their relationship platonic or familial.
When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes the new lord of the manor and immediately downgrades Heathcliff from family member to slave. even casting him out of the house and giving him a new room in the stable with the animals. Then, Catherine begins climbing the social ladder, spending more time with the well-to-do neighbors the Lintons. When she becomes engaged to their milquetoast son Edgar Linton (Jonathan Powell as a youth, James Northcote as an adult), Heathcliff leaves the farm.
He returns a few years later flush with a mysterious fortune and anxious to win back Catherine and exact revenge on Hindley. When he learns that Catherine has married Edgar and is expecting his child, Heathcliff also begins a destructive romance with her sister-in-law, Isabella (Nichola Burley).
Arnold’s first-time actors are only able to effectively capture the wildness of Heathcliff and Catherine, but the filmmaker makes it clear that the story’s animal fierceness is really the only part that interests her. Instead of becoming enamored of fancy frocks and bodice-ripping love scenes, she obsessively focuses on spiders building webs, feral-looking dogs slinking around and doomed rabbits trying to escape snares.
She pares away the florid dialogue to the point that the characters hardly do more than grunt, exchange loaded glances and drop a few f-bombs and other curses. (The film is not rated but the language would earn it an R.) She forgoes the typical musical score and lets the shrieking wind and other natural sounds provide the soundtrack. While the choice gives the story an aptly mournful air, the little dialogue she does is sometimes lost in the yowling gusts.
Likewise, Arnold eschews artificial light in favor of gas lamps and candle glow, which gives the movie a realistic and appropriate gloom, but some of the interior scenes are so dark you can’t even tell which characters are in them.
The director eagerly divests “Wuthering Heights” of the stifling artifice of the costume drama only to become enslaved by the artifice of the atmospheric indie drama.