Here we have an act ballsy, joyful revisionism. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë has, by my count, been filmed at least a half dozen times, not counting the innumerable TV movies and mini-series that have aired over the past several decades. This new version from British rising star Andrea Arnold, who recently directed the incredibly accomplished coming-of-age story Fish Tank, exists at odds with tradition, standing primarily to give a sucker punch to genteel awards-season literary adaptations and drag Romanticism back down into the mud. Nearly all formal decisions strip the story of familiarity and austerity: everything is shot in handheld close-up; there's no musical score (until the end, when the music is anachronistic); the direction is as gritty as possible (has any recent film so potently captured the feeling of dirt and soot?); chronology is compressed in ways that rob you of your bearing; and most of all, the script is whittled to practically a bare outline, with long silences, lots of whispering, and occasional lines of dialogue—like "fuck you, you cunt"—that I'm willing to wager are not in the Brontë original.
All of this may indicate that Arnold's Wuthering Heights is not straight drama, and is more a statement than a story. It certainly goes out of its way to distance the viewer; like Michael Mann's Public Enemies, it shoots the past in a way we're not used to seeing the past on screen, so the audience that went to see Jane Eyre last year (i.e., my parents) is in for a surprise, and probably a slog. But if the film is only iconoclasm, that doesn't fully explain the spell it casts. The essential bare-bones story of a turbulent life and a hollow revenge can still get stuck in your chest, and the lack of operatic flourishes make the ending feel like something more vital and earthy. If nothing else, and as Fish Tank showed, Arnold is a director who excels at capturing raw desires. And it's one of the most visually beautiful films of the year, chaotic and controlled, grimy and sublime, constantly moving.
4 out of 5 stars.
Wuthering Heights played at the Venice Film Festival in 2011 and opens in US theaters this weekend. Take a chance on it.