Year-round, a grim, cold, bleached-out rain finds the holes in the roof of the English farmhouse called Wuthering Heights. Its echoes are so loud and menacing that it almost silences the furtive characters that walk the moors of this latest adaptation of the famous 1847 novel. These characters trudge the Yorkshire moors with heavy-lidded despair out of something more catastrophic than boredom. The lives of the Earnshaw family feel as damp as the rain, mist and muck that drape their habitat. These are more than just furtive people sauntering away from the camera — these are unremarkable, unlikable individuals, as real and disconnected from us as anyone from the late 18th century would be.
Andrea Arnold strips Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel to its barest, most natural form. The movie feels so realistic and lived-in that you can’t help but wonder if Arnold time-traveled to the late 1700s to shoot it. Adding to the film’s naturalism is Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s interesting decision to shoot in natural light, which benefits the story as much as it displaces us from it. Sure, the movie looks much more real for it, but when the characters are barely detectable in midnight darkness and their faces are swallowed by the grayness of the lowering skies over them, the decision feels distracting rather than inspiring.
Arnold’s effort to breathe some life into the story by making it feel as real as possible is admirable but in the end disappointing. She’s so invested in selling us the story’s authenticity that she forgets to involve us emotionally into the bleeding romance budding before us between young Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a black gypsy the Earnshaw adopt. Arnold showed in 2009’s “Fish Tank” that she can get heavy charge from actors, images, and sound, even when there seems to be little happening. She proves it once again here in some very powerful scenes that evoke a genuine tenderness and melancholia between the teenage lovers. Yet, more often than not, Arnold wanders so much that the truly impactful scenes get shuffled among lapses of nothingness.
Fortunately, the movie kicks into gear in the second half, partly thanks to Arnold injecting some dramatic tension into the story, but mostly thanks to Kaya Scodelario, who plays an older Cathy with the impassioned aura the movie was missing all along. Scodelario is a perfect Catherine Earnshaw: a tall, beatific sylph capturing our attention with the same magnetic force by which Heathcliff is drawn to her. Underneath the actress’s cool, raspy voice lies the torment of love’s rage, jealousy and betrayal. In other words, she instills passion into her performance while still suiting it to Arnold’s subdued and silent tone. In other words, Scodelario achieves what the other principal actors tried but didn’t manage to succeed: involving the audience at an emotional level with the murkiness of Arnold’s style.
Scodelario aside, there’s something unextravagant about Arnold’s film. It feels so natural and real that it seems less like an actual interpretation of Bronte’s characters and more like a study of the people that Bronte might have actually based her characters on. The upsetting thing is that real people aren’t nearly as fascinating as the colorful literary figures that fill the pages of 19th-century literature. And when your characters are as flimsy and unidentifiable as Arnold’s characters are, it’s hard to invest two hours just to follow them batter each other away emotionally and physically.
Contact Braulio at [email protected]
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