Review of Wuthering Heights

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Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte, the film follows a poor boy of unknown origins who is rescued from poverty and taken in by the Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy.
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Movie Review: "Wuthering Heights"

-- Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 128 minutes
Release Date: October 5, 2012
Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Genre: Drama/Romance

There have been countless screen, stage, and television adaptations of the classic novel "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte. With each version, directors must find a way to set themselves apart from the others while remaining close to the timeless source material. For this 2011 version (it was released in 2011 in the United Kingdom ahead of a 2012 release in the United States), director Andrea Arnold cast a British actor of African descent in the pivotal role of Heathcliff.

This may not seem like a big deal at first, but surprisingly, it is the first time that a major production of this movie has cast a black man in the lead role. The casting actually fits in better with what Bronte wrote, because she described Heathcliff as a "dark-skinned gypsy." She also wrote that he was slightly Lascar, which was a term used in the book's 1800s setting for a person from the West Indies area. Arnold's casting choice could help to make this the most faithful film adaptation of Bronte's novel.

The story starts with child actors portraying Catherine Earnshaw (Shannon Beer) and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave). Heathcliff is a young boy who Catherine's father, the good Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), finds wandering the streets on a cold night. Mr. Earnshaw brings the boy home, christens him, and allows him to become a part of the family. He grows up with Cathy and her brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) at the Earnshaws' gloomy but gorgeous estate called Wuthering Heights.

Hindley watches as Catherine and Heathcliff grow close and share a bond that he and Catherine never had. He becomes so bitter and jealous that upon Mr. Earnshaw's sudden passing, he declares Heathcliff a servant with no rights to claim any part of the estate the way a true heir would. Catherine protests to no avail, since women had no rights back then. Heathcliff flees Wuthering Heights because of Hindley's cruelty, leaving Catherine in despair.

A few years later, Heathcliff returns to the Earnshaw home as a successful gentleman who is ready to take his rightful place as an heir. Hindley will have none of it, and Catherine has already tried to move on with a local man named Edgar (James Northcote), who has family wealth and status on his side. A furious and heartbroken Heathcliff knows he is about to lose the only woman he ever loved, and so he begins his plan for revenge on the entire family. His cold, callous actions set in motion a tragic and sometimes horrifying series of events.

Arnold filmed the movie using several handheld cameras that emphasize the claustrophobic nature of living on the estate. This choice in cinematography makes the tense indoor exchanges and interactions between characters all the more riveting. For the numerous outdoor shots, Arnold changed things up, using camera angles that show the moors of the family farm in all their gray, gloomy splendor. Though there is some background music, Arnold largely uses a nature soundtrack that represents what the characters would really be hearing in this type of rural setting. As Catherine and Heathcliff take to the harsh outdoors to play and get away from life, the audience hears bugs buzzing and shoes moving through dense pools of mud. The sparseness of the sounds is another aspect that sets this version of "Wuthering Heights" apart from other adaptations.

With a running time of just over two hours, there is not enough time to relay the story of Catherine's daughter and how she comes to know Heathcliff in his older years, which is covered in the second half of Bronte's book. Most film versions of the book leave off this second half, which has a much happier ending than the first half of the book does.

In leaving off the second half, Arnold has put together a film that is truly heartbreaking. The sad ending will surprise nobody who has read the classic novel, but will still feel like a punch to the gut. This feeling largely comes out of the performances by leads Scodelario and Howson. Each exchange between them betrays the emotions felt just underneath the surface: the affection that neither dares to speak out loud. The unfulfilled love between the two is palpable, which serves to make the ultimate ending all the more tragic. The ending, therefore, matches the dark, harsh tones of the film, and is a testament to Arnold's eye for setting and mood in this well-made and visually striking film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars