While a new adaptation of Emily Bronte‘s class English novel might seem to be wholly unnecessary (the book has been adapted in various ways at least thirty times), writer and director Andrea Arnold‘s gorgeous take on Wuthering Heights more than does justice to the look and feel of Bronte’s work, lending a weight and power to the story that should captivate more than just fans of the novel. Centered on the tragic story of Cathy Earnshaw and the orphan Heathcliff, the film is a stunning mediation on love, loss, memory, and pain.

An orphan abandoned on the street, Heathcliff is brought as a child to the wild English moor estate known as Wuthering Heights by Cathy’s father, Mr. Earnshaw, a hardcore Christian who is convinced that it’s the right thing to do. But Earnshaw’s beliefs are not rooted in a sense of charity, but as an attempt to secure salvation, which is why the Earnshaws at large treat Heathcliff so poorly. Over time, the nearly-feral Cathy and Heathcliff develop a passion for each other that is all-consuming, though it only serves to make their already physically demanding lives that much harder emotionally.

Arnold has used a more old-fashioned aspect ratio for the film – 4:3 instead of the more standard 1.37:1. The effect is unexpectedly profound, because the smaller “box” look of it automatically adds a sense of confinement to the film, even as the screen is filled with sweeping shots of the English moors. Arnold, long concerned with visuals and space, has outdone herself with her Wuthering Heights. The film is, quite simply, visually stunning, focused on nature and movement, water and sky, the spaces that try to hold in both Cathy and Heathcliff. It is undeniably a work of great visual art.

Bronte’s novel is significantly more convoluted than most film adaptations let on – and while Cathy and Heathcliff and their love story form the central plot of the novel, there are more characters, more plots, and more time covered than most traditional adaptations offer. In this case, Arnold’s film spends too much time with the child versions of Cathy and Heathcliff – the book itself is pretty evenly split between childhood and adulthood, and while Arnold’s choice to focus on the younger counterparts (Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave) adds to the sense of the film being reflected back through memory, it’s a waste of the two very talented young thespians that Arnold picked for her adult versions.

Arnold infamously cast relative newcomer James Howson in the role of the adult Heathcliff, with Glave set to play his younger version, somewhat controversially assigning the role to actors who are black. While most film adaptations of the work have used white actors to play both Cathy and Heathcliff, Bronte’s novel identifies Heathcliff as a gypsy. It’s a compelling move by Arnold, and one that makes the distinctions between Cathy and Heathcliff feel even more pronounced. As the adult Cathy, Kaya Scodelario is gorgeous and contemptuous, just as her character should be.

But despite how gorgeous and lush and evocative Arnold’s visuals are, it is difficult to get fully emotionally invested in the film. Oddly enough, it is Arnold’s adherence to her source material that prohibits her from crafting a rewarding film that chronicles one of literature’s most tragic love affairs, because a true adaptation of Bronte’s novel can’t ignore the fact that Cathy and Heathcliff are wretched, horrible, unrelentingly selfish human beings. Few couples of their renown are as absolutely irredeemable as Cathy and Heathcliff. Even the passion of their love does not humanize them, as they use it as an excuse to damage absolutely everyone else around them (innocent or not).

The Upside: Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is not only the most visually accomplished and powerful film she’s made yet, it’s one of the most visually accomplished and powerful films of the year. Layered with symbolism, processed through the unreliability of emotion and memory, it’s true visual art.

The Downside: A faithful adaptation of its source material means that Arnold is left with a film that centers on two awful people, and is tasked with making their passion feel sympathetic, but that never happens. Despite casting two interesting up-and-comers for the roles of adult Cathy and Heathcliff, the film spends too much time with their younger counterparts.

On the Side: Scodelario was a fan favorite for the role of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a role the eventually went to Jennifer Lawrence.

Snuggle up with the rest of our Sundance 2012 coverage


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