DP Robbie Ryan imbues the Yorkshire moors with a foreboding mist...
Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is perhaps the most over-adapted novel of all time, to the point of wondering, upon entering the cinema today, if this film even had a cause to exist. Recent attempts have been timid and stuffy, but Andrea Arnold's stab at the tale (and boy, do I mean stab) is perhaps the best yet, imagining the Yorkshire moors as bleak, uninhabitable expanses encircled by a choking mist, and Wuthering Heights the location for desolation and turmoil. Rather than Brontë's "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect", Heathcliff is here a black ex-slave, brandished as such by the whip which has left heavy, leech-like scars on his back. Arnold's probing camera looks upon each ingrained gash with an animalistic fascination, finding something sensual in their shape, illuminated by rogue flecks of flame. Later, deep in the isolated moors, Cathy lifts Heathcliff's shirt and licks the blood from his wounds like a cat lapping milk. Wuthering Heights 2011 is a raw and primal beast, deeply felt and in-tune with the Earth. DP Robbie Ryan's macro photography ensures that every blade of grass and flapping wing has significance, and the damp soil exudes a tangible scent. In short: it's a masterpiece.
Re-establishing the plot would only waste space, so I'll redirect the five people who haven't read Brontë's source to their nearest library - and yes, I'll accept your thanks in advance. Arnold's imagining, shot in 1.33 and closing on a new track from Mumford & Sons, does have its share of modernist touches (the swearing is lifted straight from Fish Tank's council estate), but it's also loyal to the characters, whose previous incarnations (Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche) have been far removed - both in age and image - from the descriptions of the text. The actors here suit the material perfectly, and have an uncanny continuity in their image. James Howson, who plays the older Heathcliff, looks every bit the elder of Solomon Glave, whose distinctive eyes lend the film's first half such profound sadness. It really feels like Arnold has allowed ten years for the boy to grow up and then resumed shooting, a theory made all the more believable by the way she frames his aging; Heathcliff disappears into the dead of night as a boy, and reappears from the mist a man. Kaya Scodelario is also believable as the elder of Shannon Beer, although Howson (whose performance has been much criticized) delivers the stronger turn. As in her previous film, Arnold has opted for largely non-professional actors here, and their awkward naturalism adds to the complexity of Brontë's world.
It's impossible to recall numerically the amount of times Wuthering Heights took my breath away, not only in its moments of savagery (several scenes of animal cruelty made my stomach churn), but also in the daring of its camerawork. One particularly impressive moment focuses on a shot of a tumbling trunk and then match cuts to a similarly designed coffin being lowered into the earth. Only after recovering from the disorientation of this move did I recognize its genius, a word which suitably describes DP Robbie Ryan. He's undoubtedly Britain's best working cinematographer (Eduard Grau, can we still be friends?), but even for him this is a revelatory work. The browns, blues and greys of this world are impeccably measured, and each tone informs a different feeling. The fevered beat of a moth's wings exists almost in slow motion; the yellow of his figure completely hypnotic. I can't think of a single film which better expresses the feeling of being amongst nature - the rolling hills, the bitter chill of the southern wind, the sludge of wet soil, the rime which stretches over the formidable landscape. Ryan employs natural sound and light to further envelope us in this astonishing vision of England, and Arnold's economic storytelling (each plot point is expanded by gesture rather than dialogue) ought to earn her an Oscar nomination. We all know the film is too bold for Academy recognition, but the truth remains evident. There is no Wuthering Heights after Andrea Arnold.