*** (out of four)
Writer-director Andrea Arnold’s last film, 2010’s “Fish Tank,” starred Michael Fassbender in one of many fantastic performances that all but guaranteed he'd be a huge star. One year later, Fassbender held his own in Cary Fukunaga's big-screen take on Charlotte Bronte's “Jane Eyre,” which has been covered so many times it will probably be adapted again tomorrow.
Now, completing this little circle, Arnold takes her turn at a Bronte classic with her stark, breathless version of “Wuthering Heights.” Purists may find it too atmospheric; personally, I bring no pre-conceptions about the material (never read the book in English class) and think the film more successfully communicates old-fashioned feelings to a modern screen than Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” or Joe Wright’s recent “Anna Karenina.”
In “Heights,” the Earnshaw family takes in a boy from off the street and names him Heathcliff (Solomon Glave). He develops a trust with his foster sister, Catherine (Shannon Beer), while Heathcliff’s foster brother, Hindley (Lee Shaw), spouts racial slurs at him and beats him up. Based on the isolation of the Earnshaw farm and general lack of entertainment choices in 19th-century England, it’s not as if Heathcliff’s swimming in other options to provide the basics.
Arnold's “Wuthering Heights” feels downright Malick-esque in its incorporation of weather and animals, though Arnold actually uses nature to inform the story. Atop a horse, with Catherine's hair whipping in the wind and, in effect, his face, Heathcliff grows closer to the only person willing to stand up for him. The film's alive with texture—sensations and noises, fur and breezes, accentuating both slow-moving stillness and the perception of the now. Against the beauty of horses or the crackle of the fireplace is the shock of Heathcliff snapping a rabbit's neck or killing a sheep. There's also plenty of human-against-human viciousness, without any hunting-related motivation whatsoever.
The film's approach subdues some of the character motivations and depth of feeling, including Isabella (Nichola Burley) being second choice when Heathcliff and Catherine grow up (and are played by James Howson and Kaya Scodelario). The emotions still run high among the power structure of a family, the ferocity of bigotry and the force of memories, as Heathcliff insists, “There is nothing I want to remember.” His star-crossed connection with Catherine unfolds as often-wordless secrets in the dark, a devastating love the world may never know.
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