There’s a certain kind of filmgoer that cowers and winces a bit when presented with a movie adaptation of a classic work of literature, and I must confess, that filmgoer is often me. We products of public school education didn’t weren’t always assigned the necessary books, and those that were part of the curriculum may have been Cliff’s Noted a bit more than we’re comfortable admitting, so we feel ill-equipped to tackle film versions of The Great Books. What if we can’t follow what’s happening? What if we don’t realize that they, oh, changed the ending and added a whole weird bi-curious angle? Nothing makes you sound like uncultured swine more than being told that you’d have better appreciated or understood a film if you’ve read the book (“You haven’t read the book?”), and so some of us just steer clear. But if you share these neuroses, here’s the good news: Andrea Arnold’s new film of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a wholly unpretentious and surprisingly modest literary adaptation.
The story, as in the book, is of the doomed love affair between Heathcliff and Catherine, here played as youngsters by Solomon Grave and Shannon Beer, and as adults by James Howson and Kaya Scodelario. Heathcliff, a homeless boy, is brought to the Earshaw family estate by their patriarch (Paul Hilton), and instantly sets off family rifts: son Hindley (Lee Shaw) is immediately jealous and resentful, but daughter Catherine and Heathcliff form an attachment that does not waver through deaths, births, and abuses mental and physical.
The trailers for Wuthering Heights have been grabbing attention for months, due to the film’s distinctive yet approachable look. Arnold eschews the customary wide-screen format to shoot in a closed-in, “full frame” 1.33:1 aspect ratio; the last major release to do so was Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (also released by Heights’ distributor, Oscilloscope). As Reichardt did, Arnold uses the compact frame to shut down, or at least minimize, the picturesque quality of the admittedly lovely outdoor photography; these gorgeous vistas look a little less wide and a little more inhabited rather than merely photographed. (The square frame will also help enable the inevitable “Instagram Brontë” jokes.) Robbie Ryan’s abrupt, often uncomfortably intimate handheld cinematography is also a bit of an anomaly for the genre, but it works; it combines with the direction and the playing to created a stripped-down quality that lays bare the intense (and often troublesome) emotions at the story’s center.
The screenplay, by director Arnold and Olivia Hetreed, jettisons the second-generation romance at the end of the book (as most film versions do, the Internet assures me). It also tells its story with shockingly little dialogue, and no music — if memory serves, the only cue is the Mumford & Sons song that plays over the end credits. Instead, Arnold conveys Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship visually: through their interactions, shared moments, and many tightly held close-ups. On that last count, the actors deliver handily; both pairs manage to convey their unspoken bond and affection almost entirely in meaningful glances and looks of longing.
Wuthering Heights is prone to minor bouts of self-indulgence, and has a few inexplicable touches (I can’t begin to understand why there’s so much gratuitous animal cruelty in it, and I’m not usually one to get squeamish about such things). But Arnold has done something truly commendable, and presumably difficult, here: she’s made a faithful literary adaptation that is not updated, but modernized. The clothing and sets are period, the style anything but. In doing so, she’s taken a classic story and made it into something admirably fresh and new.
Wuthering Heights is out today in limited release — as are several other good titles, including V/H/S, Wake in Fright, Butter, and The Oranges. More on all of those in this month’s indie movie guide.