There are more than a few things about Andrea Arnold’s retelling of Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights that stick out. These elements aren’t only unique for a literary adaptation, but also for most movies. Like in her previous film Fish Tank (a film I highly recommend and not solely for Michael Fassbender), Heights is shot in the box-shaped 1.33 aspect ratio. This artistic decision might be seen as a gimmick similar to shooting a modern film on 70mm film stock, but the results speak for themselves. Arnold and her brilliant cinematographer Robbie Ryan make ample use of the square palette. Despite the seemingly limited space, the movie invokes an almost primal response based heavily upon its images.
The visuals are important because another striking detail about the movie is the minor amount of dialogue. It is never boring though because the visuals are so strong. When characters do speak the words hold a special power for they have been chosen carefully. The film is obsessively interested in nature and how it intersects with human nature. Although the story is considered a classic romance, this movie is less romantic than elemental. It’s all very unorthodox but hardly obstructive. The story of Heathcliff and Catherine (Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario) is still clear and intact.
Heathcliff (Solomon Glave and James Howson), portrayed as black for the first time, is taken in by Catherine’s father. Isolated by the foggy moors and on the frontier of puberty, they grow quite fond of each other. But the indifference of fate and the importance of status conspire against them. Years pass before Heathcliff announces his intentions but it might be too late. This is the framework, the spine, but the movie is far more interested in the sound of branches than stolen kisses. The tactile is emphasized over the abstract.
This might be the prettiest dirty picture I’ve ever seen. Every shot appears to have a swirl of dust in the foreground. The perpetual grey sky keeps time slippery, and the howl of wind is ceaseless. Multiple close-ups of insects, animals, and flora aren’t indulgences but essential to the film’s approach. It’s about finding beauty in the mud. It’s about being in harmony with one’s environment as much as one’s self.
Heathcliff has convinced himself Catherine is essential to him, that they are one and the same. But while Heathcliff has embraced this, Catherine is unsure. In visual terms, we’ll see Heathcliff lay about in muddy grass while rain pours down. Meanwhile, Catherine is drawn to the neighbor’s bigger, cleaner house. Heathcliff pinning Catherine down and smearing her with mud is a repeated and loaded image.
Why all this effort? Why not make a straightforward period piece? Well that’s been done. Arnold’s visual approach is far more interesting and infinitely more sensual. Admittedly, parts of the second half dragged and a few moments could have used a traditional touch. But the picture remains remarkable. By pushing the themes and the image over the costumes and the text, Arnold successfully transports us not just to Yorkshire, but straight to the raw emotion of characters we thought we knew.