'Wuthering Heights' sticks close to windy moors ★★ 1/2

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'Wuthering Heights'

'Wuthering Heights' (November 29, 2012)

Writer-director Andrea Arnold made "Red Road" and "Fish Tank," two frank and exceptional portraits of emotionally isolated young women hurtling, dangerously, into their futures. These character studies, set in Scotland and England, respectively, prepared Arnold well for taking on "Wuthering Heights," especially the way she has chosen to take it on: as a stark reconsideration of the Emily Bronte novel.

I saw the film, a noble mixed bag full of sharp objects, a few weeks ago. What I remember most clearly about it now is its paradoxical dankness. Photographed like a breathless nature documentary in windy, swampy, muddy North Yorkshire by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who has worked on all of Arnold's feature-length and short films to date, this "Wuthering Heights" exists on a deglamorized planet far, far away from the best-known film adaptation of the story to date, William Wyler's 1939 showcase for Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier.

Heathcliff, the novel's Gypsy-blooded "exotic," is no longer simply that. He is black, a Liverpool resident of the streets adopted by Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) and relocated to the moors and the hostile stares of Wuthering Heights. Arnold's casting — Solomon Glave plays young Heathcliff, a boy, then played a few years older by James Howson — shortcuts and crystallizes the 19th century outsider's angst.

As Heathcliff falls into a charged friendship with Cathy (Shannon Beer, followed by Kaya Scodelario), Arnold's film observes these star-crossed sort-of-siblings as creatures of the wild, expressing their feelings in the most elemental way. At one point Cathy licks Heathcliff's wounds after he receives his latest unjust beating. Cathy's loutish brother (Lee Shaw) represents unthinking prejudice, violent and blinkered.

The younger actors leave the scene when Cathy becomes engaged to the wealthy Edgar Linton (James Northcote), sending Heathcliff off on his own path to become a very different version of himself.

Arnold's interpretation is taciturn, often entirely without dialogue, though it becomes increasingly conventional in its scene structure as it goes and as the actors hand off the key roles. In reality it's a bit of a slog. The gulf between the cast's first-time film actors and their more seasoned cohorts is considerable. The young performers have their moments, but they're rarely fully felt or dramatically incisive. The movie plays like an idea for a "Wuthering Heights" adaptation.

And yet parts of it stick with you. As adventurous concepts go, this one travels in the exact opposite direction of the new Joe Wright-directed "Anna Karenina," another intriguing mixed bag, though that adaptation risks suffocating on its own elaborate layering and thematic embroidery. Arnold's "Wuthering Heights" is many things, and not others, but it comes with the lowest possible embroidery count.

To say nothing of its frippery count.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Wuthering Heights' -- 2 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time:
2:08
Opens: Friday

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