Without a doubt, Andrea Arnold is one of the most talented directors working today. Her previous film, Fish Tank, was a stunning portrayal of coming of age in the bleak for of the British projects. This year, she comes to TIFF with a bold take on a classic novel about unrequited love, Wuthering Heights. To say that Arnold’s adaptation is heavy would be an understatement. The film is downright dark and disturbing at many points. And while I loved the style of the film, and acting, and the myriad observations Arnold makes with her camera, the beautiful moments from scene to scene did not fully overcome the extremely pared down narrative.
The film is not at all a write-off. For fans of Arnold’s work, Wuthering Heights is definitely in keeping with her style. The film definitely manages to be effective within individual scenes, and is especially good during the first hour, which features Catherine and Heathcliff as younger children. That first hour or so is almost completely devoid of dialogue. The narrative is shown completely through the lens of the camera, and Arnold does this brilliantly. We feel the raw, handheld, grainy, 1.33:1 image observing every little detail of these kids’ lives and their blossoming romance. In the darker moments we can feel the dirt and the pain coming right off the screen. Arnold gets so close to everything, and gives us an amazingly natural soundscape that features no musical scoring, with the result being that we can sense everything we see. At some points it’s almost as if Arnold is having us actually smell the air these characters are breathing.
It’s really the second half, in which Catherine and Heathcliff have grown older, that the problems with the film make themselves more clear. First of all, the tone becomes, in places, far more dour and often disturbing. The narrative also begins to pick up, with more drama and more dialogue. But when this happens it becomes clear that the super-spare narrative Arnold has derived from the novel is also the film’s biggest flaw. Whereas the rich character moments of the first half worked beautifully, the narrative of the second half is to slight to properly re-engage with these characters as adults. The result is a film with an ending that lacks a significant emotional punch, even if it delivers in terms of pure cruelty.
Wuthering Heights is an example of pure cinema, but it is pure cinema that doesn’t quite reach the levels of Arnold’s ambition. She brings the extremely modern style of Fish Tank to the period setting of old rural Britain, but in keeping her focus constantly on the thematic development of the characters rather than the plot, she lessens the impact of those themes. It’s a beautifully made film, but it’s flaws hold it back from proper greatness.