Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sundance ’12: Wuthering Heights

Remember Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in William Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s romantic classic? If you do, you had best forget them now. Andrea Arnold radically reconceptualizes the familiar story in her mud and thatch version of Wuthering Heights (trailer here), which screens at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

The basic elements are still here. Heathclliff is a sullen young waif adopted by Earshaw, a stern but charitable farmer of property. The lad forges a deep bond with his sort-of sister Catherine, but earns the enmity of Earshaw’s son Linton, for usurping his father’s affections. When the devout farmer dies, Linton inherits the farm, stripping Heathcliff of his family standing. Now a lowly servant, Heathcliff nurses his resentments, which will lead to tragedy.

However, Arnold’s take on Brontë strips away the high costume drama romanticism, tacking an earthy, naturalistic course. Her casting of Afro-Caribbean actors as Heathcliff has garnered much attention, but that is really the least unconventional aspect of her approach. This is a highly impressionistic and ruminative film that revels in closely observed nature studies (masterfully lensed by Robbie Ryan) and relies on ambient noise rather than complimentary music and even dialogue. Set amid a harsh, unsentimentalized environment, Earnshaw’s home, Wuthering Heights, is simply a working farm, with all the muck and mire one should expect. Even Thrushcross Grange is cut down to size, nowhere near as imposing as Highclere Castle (a.k.a. Downton Abbey).

That is not to say it is not effective. As young Heathcliff and Catherine, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer forcefully portray their characters’ animalism and instinctive defiance. Glave is a particularly electric screen presence, who largely carries the quiet film on his shoulders. By contrast, James Howson is far less dynamic as the older Heathcliff, lacking the charismatic malevolence the role demands. Frankly, he hardly looks much older than Glave.

Indeed, Arnold’s Heights is at its best during Heathcliff and Catherine’s formative years. Like most adaptations, the late chapters concerning their grown children are omitted. Since the film proceeds without a narrator, Mr. Lockwood also gets the boat. However, Heathcliff’s relationship with Isabella is shoehorned in rather awkwardly, perhaps to placate the faithful.

Heights’ Spartan brutality is truly haunting. However, it is doomed to collect decidedly negative online feedback. People who go to Brontë films, do not want to see something new and different. They want the “Oh, Heathcliff” scene on the moors. This is not that kind of film. It viscerally expresses a host of tactile sensations, de-emphasizing melodramatic plot turns. Despite a comparatively weaker third act, it is a bold work that really stays with you after viewing, but due to its nature, it is only recommended for adventurous, fully informed audiences. It screens again during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival tomorrow (1/27) in Park City and this Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake.