Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wuthering Heights 2011 (or 2012?) Review


I've finally seen it! For years now, the newest adaptation of Wuthering Heights has been disappearing, resurfacing, and then disappearing again. However, around the time I found out that Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre would be released in 2011, I also discovered that Wuthering Heights was back in business, being directed by none other than Andrea Arnold. I awaited the films release with curious anticipation, wondering what Arnold would bring to a novel that has been relentlessly adapted on screen for decades.

As an avid Jane Eyre loyalist, I'll be the first to admit that Wuthering Heights never was and probably never will be my cup of tea. I've read the book many times and have yet to discover why so many exalt it so highly, but that hasn't stopped me from seeing a few adaptations and enjoying them. The '39 was the first one I was ever acquainted it, and I liked it well enough. The '09 was my favorite. The "Ralph Fiennes" was acceptable because Ralph Fiennes was Heathcliff (and who wouldn't love that?). The rest  either went unwatched or were too miserable to really mention.

From the moment of its announcement, the filmmakers succeeded in shadowing the 2011 adaptation in a veil of mystery. Facts about the plot and the characters remained evasive and no one really knew how the movie would end up; we merely prayed for dear life that it wouldn't be butchered. We were, however, presented with three bold facts. Andrea Arnold would be the director. Kaya Scoledario would become Cathy Earnshaw/Linton. But perhaps the greatest and most controversial decision the filmmakers made was deciding to cast an unknown black actor (James Howson) as Heathcliff, the leading man. With so many questions surrounding the project, my interest was heightened. I was merely disappointed, however, when it was announced that the film wouldn't be released in the US until 2012. In fact, it's been months since its release in Europe and yet the United States has only seen Arnold's Wuthering Heights at a few film festivals here and there.

The official US release date is still relatively unknown. Most likely the film won't be going to mega-movie theaters, but I'm sure it'll sneak its way onto a few art house limited release screens. My impatience will always get the best of me, however, and so I've managed to see the movie ahead of time. This is going to be a long review containing a fair amount of spoilers, so beware.


The casting of the movie was perhaps the most debatable aspect in everyone's eyes. I think everyone wondered if Arnold really knew what she was doing. What might throw a dutiful Wuthering Heights purist off initially is the fact that the larger portion of the film is devoted to Cathy and Heathcliff's adolescent years. Newcomers Shannon Beer (Cathy) and Solomon Glave (Heathcliff) are really the stars of the show because, in essence, it is their movie. It's strange really, seeing young Cathy and Heathcliff for most of the movie, and I'll be the first to admit that I never really got quite used to that hitch in the plot, but the fourteen-year-old actors were the highlight of the film. Beer and Glave both delivered superb performances for such young actors. The audience really comes to terms with the fact that there was chemistry between Cathy and Heathcliff from childhood.

Soon enough Kaya and James Howson (the unknown black actor) stepped in to play the adult Cathy and Heathcliff after Cathy marries Edgar Linton and Heathcliff comes back from his mysterious and long travels. From subsequent research, I ought to warn you that Heathcliff's voice was not actually Howson's. According to various reports and interviews with Howson himself, he was voiced over by someone else and he merely lent his looks for the part. Other problems also arise with the casting of the two adult leads, namely the fact that they seem completely unrelated to the actors who played the adolescents. Scodelario looks and acts like a person wholly unconnected to Beer's Cathy, and the same thing may be said for Howson and Glave. Assessed individually, the acting wasn't bad at all, but collectively there was something missing.

I know what most of you are thinking. "What is your opinion on the black Heathcliff deal?" In all honesty, it really didn't bother me. In fact, it was almost natural. I personally don't understand what all the hoopla was about in the first place. Of course, most people don't necessarily envision a black Heathcliff when they're reading the novel, but it's rare in any adaptation that the "envisioned" actor gets casted.


Screenplay: This is the area in which I have my biggest qualms. The screenplay was practically nonexistent in this film. Words were extremely few. When imagining an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, anyone who has read the novel will immediately picture, "I am Heathcliff" and "I cannot live without my soul", and yet most of the lines that every fan looks for are nowhere to be found in this adaptation. There's little verbal conversation between the characters, but there is a lot of eye contact and sensuality which kind of serves as its own tangible screenplay. It doesn't take the audience long to realize that this isn't an omniscient approach to the novel, but rather a version of Wuthering Heights seen completely through the eyes of Heathcliff. <-- That was something I wasn't prepared for, and in the end I'm not sure whether it doomed or benefited the film.

Cinematography: The camerawork was without a doubt the film's greatest strength. With Andrea Arnold running the show, I knew that this version of Wuthering Heights would be all about appealing to visual emotion. The dark, mysterious, gloomy, and yet strangely beautiful English moors are the real main character in the movie. In fact, the scenery gets more screen time than anything. We see wind whistling through sultry wildflowers, tall grass being swept by enormous gusts, and lots of nature, bugs, and mud. There is a strange but refreshing kind of tangibility that pulls the audience into the film and expresses the emotions of the characters.

Soundtrack: There isn't one. At the end of the movie you get a minute song from Mumford & Sons (it's a good song) and that's it.


Unfortunately, there are a lot of those. Overall, I found the movie too quiet. There was no dialogue, and as much as I enjoy subtlety, too much of it can quickly shift the audience into a state of boredom (which was the case with me). As sensual as the cinematography was, there was no physical sensuality between the characters, save one moment when Heathcliff and Cathy wrestle in the mud. There is no kissing, there is no reckless passion. There are merely plants and animals and shots of humans in between. If their was one word I could use to sum up the two hour film, it would be "nostalgic."

Could this version really be called Wuthering Heights? Not really. It's merely a film that shares a few circumstantial similarities with a novel of the same name. If you're looking for faithfulness, you won't really find it. But if you're looking for raw cinematography, or just rawness period, then this might be the version you've been searching for. If you're a true purist, I would almost bet that you won't like it.

The one redeeming thing I can say about this adaptation, however, is the fact that it reached me in a way no other adaptation was able to do. For years, all I've only been able to visualize Wuthering Heights as an unrealistically harsh tale about the twisted love between two strangely narcissistic characters. I was always Heathcliff's severest critic because I was never able to understand how someone who supposedly loved so deeply could be so corroded by brutality. Through the raw, realistic, and untamed wildness of Arnold's cinematography and the blatant glances of cruelty seen in this version, I was able to understand what draws readers en masse to Wuthering Heights. In a world so eaten away with gloominess, pain, and bitterness, the fact that such a solemn and lasting passion could grow between Cathy and Heathcliff is the sole thing worth reading for. Sure, their love is dirtied by the outside forces of the world in which they live, but Heathcliff and Cathy have literally only one another.

Therefore, I can say that some obvious good came out of this adaptation in my personal experience. I have no idea what it will do for the rest of you. 


  1. Have you seen Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff? He is one of the best ones.

    I own this new version but I haven't watched it yet. It sounds as disappointing as I suspected.

    And I totally agree with your feelings on WH in general: I just don't understand the fuss.

  2. I was wondering how this film had turned out. I couldn't decide from the trailer whether I would love it for it being avant garde, or hate it for the very same reason. I'm still looking forward to watching it though...if not just for a good laugh. :)

  3. @Robas: I purposely stayed away from the adaptation with Timothy Dalton because I had already seen him as Rochester and he had nailed that role so well that I didn't really like the idea of seeing him as Heathcliff. Silly, I know. Reviewing the 2011 was very complicated because I was disappointed in some aspects, and yet I enjoyed it. I was really disappointed when comparing it to the novel, but as a movie alone it was something new.

    @Joy: I recommend you do watch it. It's very artsy and realistic in a way that a period movie has yet to be, but at the same time it's not "Wuthering Heights." I think it was a classic case of a director endeavoring to be so different that they kind of lost themselves and wandered away from the source material.

  4. The funny thing is that because he's so much younger as Heathcliff I have no problem distinguishing him from his Rochester.

  5. I skipped reading most of this review because I haven't seen the movie yet, but I completely agree with you that I've just never cared much for WH, especially compared to JE. I think it might be because everyone but Kathy just lets Heathcliff run roughshod over them, and without someone to counterbalance him once Kathy is gone, he's just a mean, bossy bully. But I do want to see this version of the movie, so will read your review once I've seen it.