Monday, 14 November 2011

'Wuthering Heights' review:

If you read certain newspapers you could be forgiven for thinking that things are getting worse by the day: that society is regressing and life on Earth is more miserable now than it was for our grandparents. This truism is, aside from being quite annoying, potentially destructive and alienating. Its effects can be seen in our most culturally conservative films: that of the "heritage" cinema. In the British heritage cinema, with its eyes set on international box office, we see this idea applied to the nineteenth century time and time again, where people are invariably more refined, elegant, witty and polite than ourselves. They live in magnificent houses surrounded by beautiful things and speak the clearest (and often most verbose) form of English.

In this cinema we not only play up to international expectations of what "Britishness" (or really "Englishness") is, but we portray ourselves as we wish to be seen. This it at its most troubling when it comes to representations of race - where black faces are erased from British history in spite of the fact that London has been a multicultural city since before the time of Shakespeare - and, of course, social class. There have certainly been handsome and enjoyable period films over the years but there can be little doubt that the genre is staid and in need of a shake-up. Luckily Andrea Arnold, the director of 'Red Road' and 'Fish Tank', has done just that with a dirty, sweary and determinedly working class adaptation of 'Wuthering Heights'.

In this tale of doomed romance she recasts the central role of Heathcliff, an enigmatic social outsider, as black whilst Cathy and her family speak with thick regional accents. It's the 'Batman Begins' of period movies: a gritty game-changer that injects realism into a genre more commonly resembling fantasy. The dimly lit interiors speak of a time before electricity and our restricted view of the world (the whole thing takes place in one rural community) creates a sense of isolation. Use of anachronistic swear words and racial slurs, along with dynamic handheld cameras, also paints the past in such a way that it feels alive and the people real. The decision to again cast many non-actors (which worked so well in 'Fish Tank') also ensures there is little chance of mistaking this for an episode of 'Downton Abbey'.

These divergences from the standard tropes of period film are not merely cosmetic but help tell the story - and in lieu of any lengthy dialogue, displaying an admirable confidence in the power of images above the spoken word. Admittedly my knowledge of Emily Brontë's nineteenth century novel extends only as far as the Kate Bush song, but the director's vision seems faithful to that of the Gothic novel as far as I can tell. The story is stripped to the bear essentials, but the elemental animal passion of the characters comes across, especially in the first half of the film depicting childhood. Having a black Heathcliff serves to imbue scenes with deeper significance - such as when he is treated as a domestic servant, beaten and locked up - whilst it also strengthens the feeling that he and the white Cathy will never be accepted as lovers.

The tragedy of Cathy and Heathcliff's destructive love-hate relationship and unconsummated love comes across vividly, as does the fecund and windswept setting, marking this as a successful adaptation of the story. But the greatest achievement - and hopefully most lasting influence - of the piece is in Arnold so boldly shaking the British costume drama by the shoulders. There will always be an audience for glossy nineteenth century literary adaptations about gaudy dresses and well-maintained topiary (and they will likely always generate more money than Arnold's film), but this is the clearest evidence since Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon' that this most stagnant of genres can be as gutsy and relevant as any other.

'Wuthering Heights' is out now in the UK where it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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