Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Not a time for muted emotions

This poster may be the most emotionally strident thing about Andrea Arnold's 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

And that's a problem for a film version of perhaps the most romantic novel ever written.

My love affair with Emily Bronte's novel goes back years, though to this day I have only read it the one time. I first encountered it in an English class my freshman year of high school, but not as a text. A classmate had written about the book, or perhaps more accurately, about Kate Bush's song "Wuthering Heights," which was inspired by it. And since our teacher was having us present our papers to the class, she played the song to us. "Heathcliff ... it's me, Cathy, I've come home ... I'm so cold, let me into your window." I didn't know who Heathcliff and Cathy were at the time, but something about Bush's passion as she sang stuck with me.

Perhaps this helped ensnare me in the book's spell when I finally read Wuthering Heights my junior year in college. In a class devoted to the Victorian novel that also featured favorites like Middlemarch and New Grub Street, Wuthering Heights had a special kind of influence on me because it tugged at the romantic inside me like these other books may not have. I read it 20 years ago, but it has remained with me, made itself a part of my person.

And so I have sought out film versions of Wuthering Heights, first the classic 1939 version directed by William Wyler, then about seven years ago, Peter Kosminsky's 1992 version. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon were the star-crossed lovers in the former, Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the latter. Both delivered, in their own ways, on the promise of the novel's exquisite emotional angst.

Andrea Arnold's version, unfortunately, did not.

Arnold's version of the story, which relies heavily on handheld camera, is clearly intended to be a modern version, even though the time period of the original novel is preserved. It's also intended as a minimalist version of the story, as the dialogue is sparse, and many developments in the plot must be inferred based on limited information. If this is your first Wuthering Heights, you will be lost.

However, I can see how the choices Arnold made -- including using a cast of non-professional actors -- might seem to invigorate the material, though I'd dispute its need for invigoration. It does feel modern, in some of the right ways.

But by eschewing most of the exposition as well as most of the declarations of love between Catherine Earnshaw and her beloved Heathcliff, Arnold leaves us with something that feels emotionally minimal as well.

Strangely, though, this may actually be the most technically beautiful iteration of the story in existence. If Terrence Malick saw this movie, he probably left the theater jealous that he wasn't the one who made it. The book's infamous setting on the moors in the north of England has never looked so damp, so fecund, so positively twinkling with dew and beauty. Nearly every scene is established with glistening branches racking in or out of focus, grass blowing, leaves twisting, fog rolling. It's quite simply some of the most gorgeous camera work I've ever seen ... and sadly, it's in the service of something regrettably limp.

Who should we blame? Arnold clearly knows how to make a dramatically resonant movie. Just watch Fish Tank if you are unsure of that. And all those inserts of nature would have really popped if they'd been buttressed by a sense of epic doomed love.

So I suppose it's the actors who aren't quite up to the task. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer play Heathcliff and Catherine as kids, then James Howson and Kaya Scodelario step into the roles later on. I suppose it's a good time, now that I am mentioning the cast, to mention that this version has chosen a black actor to play Heathcliff, while he is described in Bronte's book merely as a "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect." This is a really good decision, and contributes to the film's modernity. Unfortunately, neither Glave nor Howson can give Heathcliff that burning, feral quality that makes him one of literature's great antiheroes.

There are individual intimate moments between the characters that hint at something greater that's consuming them. But the movie has chosen to leave the richer moments off screen, alluded to but never actually dramatized. In her attempt not to contribute to the existing number of florid, emotionally purple versions of Wuthering Heights, Arnold has committed the opposite sin of failing to establish the stakes. We have to believe that these characters yearn for each other at an elemental level that's equivalent to the mud and grass of those gorgeous moors, as captured by Robbie Ryan's lens. But we never do, because some number of actual words are needed to communicate this to us.

I will admit it's possible my appreciation for this movie was negatively impacted by the fact that I watched it over the course of three evenings. I was taken down by sleep after 45 minutes the first night, and after only 30 more on the second night. I polished off the last 45 tonight. I am the first to admit this is no way to watch a movie.

Then again, if Arnold did a better job of sweeping me up, she would have had me in one go.

You know, like Kate Bush did in that high school classroom back in 1987, and Emily Bronte did in that college lecture hall in 1994.

My wife made a good point about why she wasn't that interested in watching this new one with me, which also explains why the other two film versions I've seen haven't gotten very close to my love of the book. "In the book it's this great love affair, but in the movies it's just people staring forlornly out at the moors, and that doesn't translate."

Yep, there are times when a love is so passionate, so grandiose, so tragic, that only our minds are sufficient venues in which to consider it. Commit it to film, render it specific in some unavoidable way, and it is doomed to come up short.

Just as doomed as Heathcliff and his beloved Catherine.

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