Chuck Koplinski: Stark approach reinvigorates 'Wuthering Heights'

Stark, spare and raw, Andrea Arnold's new adaptation of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" is a brave rendering of the oft-told tale of doomed love that takes the story back to its roots, examining life and passion on the moors in the most unromantic light possible.

More a primal coupling between Catherine and Heathcliff than one driven by insane passion, the story is told against a realistic background that attempts to capture the hardships indicative of 19th-century rural England while stripping the story to the bone. While this approach may rub those who love the 1939 William Wyler version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon the wrong way, it ultimately serves the story well, underscoring the intensity of emotion between the two principals.

As adapted by Arnold and screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, the story contains little in the way of traditional dialogue scenes as so much of what the characters say is pared to their most direct thoughts and intentions. Characterization is formed more through behavior than conversation, resulting in a more honest through-line to what motivates them.

The plot remains the same, what with Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) bringing home an orphan he has found on the streets of London to live on his tiny estate, known as Wuthering Heights. Forever seen as an interloper by Hindley Earnshaw (Lee Shaw), the outsider, eventually christened Heathcliff (James Howson) during a baptism that goes horribly awry, is drawn to his foster sister Catherine (Kaya Scodelario), who reciprocates his curiosity and attraction initially as an act of rebellion. However, as years pass and their intimacy grows, a passionate love grows between them that would seem unshakable — that is, until Catherine is taken into the home of their rich neighbors, the Lintons, to mend after being attacked by one of their dogs. There, she has her head turned by young Edgar (James Northcote) or, more accurately, his money and social standing.

Eschewing the use of a musical score and shooting the film in the 4:3 aspect ratio associated with cinema's early days (the frame is more square-like rather than a rectangle), Arnold is intent on giving us an unvarnished take on the story. The moors upon which the story takes place is a muddy bog, not a heather-strewn valley. Wuthering Heights is a rather ramshackle residence, rife with creaking floors, walls in dire need of painting and a weathered appearance that betokens no great wealth. This stark aesthetic carries over to the characters' threadbare clothes as well as their coarse language and at times hard-to-understand dialect. This primal approach casts the characters in a far more primitive light, making their emotions seem much more base and, in a sense, pure and ultimately more tragic.

There's a feral quality to the film as we see Cathy lick Heathcliff's wounds after he has been whipped by Hindley, witness them smear mud all over each other as they grapple with their emerging sexuality and observe a primitive birth that has tragic consequences. What with their world being so stark and uncertain, the love that the two principals find becomes all the more valuable as it is the only unsullied, pure thing they have. This emotion pulls them through, allowing them to endure the harshness of their existence and provides them with the slightest glimmer of hope against the bleak landscape of their lives. As a result, the tragedy that ensues has a greater impact and justifies the actions and reactions of all involved.

To be sure, Arnold's "Wuthering Heights" probably won't appeal to purists of Bronte's work or Wyler's adaptation. However, I found it to be a revelatory experience, as the story finds new life in being seen through such a stark lens, raising the stakes where love, passion and revenge are concerned and giving merit to all that Heathcliff and Cathy endure and suffer.

 

'Wuthering Heights'

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Cast: James Howson, Solomon Glave, Kaya Scodelario, Paul Hilton, Simone Jackson, Steve Evets, James Northcote, Jonny Powell, Nichola Burley and Eve Coverly.

Directed by Andrea Arnold; produced by Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader and Douglas Rae; screenplay by Olivia Hetreed and Arnold, based on the novel by Emily Bronte.

A Film4 Release. 129 minutes. Not rated. At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Life of Pi" a dazzling exploration of spiritual world. (3 1/2 stars out of 4)

I've become a skeptic where the modern 3-D process is concerned.

As I knew they would, the Hollywood studios have taken a good thing and overused it to the point that they're starting to see a downturn in revenues where movies using this method are concerned. It's gone from being a truly special technique that adds an exciting dimension to filmmaking (check out "Coraline" or "Avatar" for early well-made examples) to being thought of as a way to milk a few extra bucks out of filmgoers while adding nothing intrinsically valuable, either visually or narratively, to the movie it's being used on.

That being said, I can't urge you strongly enough to see Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" in the 3-D format. Much like last year's "Hugo," it's a film that seamlessly integrates the process into the storytelling and becomes an important aspect in underscoring not only a sense of wonder but in building and sustaining an emotional connection to the main character's plight.

Based on the novel by Yann Martel, and thought to be unfilmable for years by directors as varied as M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the story concerns a young man's search for spiritual enlightenment who is forced to endure a trial that ultimately provides him with the answers he seeks. That young man is Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) who becomes fascinated by various religions at a very young age. Conflicted over whether he should adhere to the Christian, Hindu or Muslim faith, he decides instead to embrace as many aspects from each as he can.

However, these are all put to a test when he becomes the sole survivor of a cataclysmic tragedy. En route to Canada with his family, which is moving with a large menagerie of animals to set up a zoo there, the freighter they are traveling on sinks during a massive storm. The sole survivors are Pi, a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, an orangutan, a hyena and a zebra, all of whom share a lifeboat. The sinking of the ship, an incredible set piece, occurs 45 minutes into the film, and for the next hour, we see Pi try to survive his ordeal. Needless to say, Darwinism kicks in quite quickly once the animals start to get hungry, and it isn't long before Pi and Parker form a tenuous truce in order to survive.

Among the many challenges facing Lee is that with only one setting for a majority of the movie, the story could very well have become static. This is avoided through the relationship Martel builds between the two survivors and in seeing how Pi tries to gather water and food to nourish their bodies as well as maintain a sense of order so his mind stays intact. As fantastic as the story is, the logic it employs holds water.

Lee pulls out all of the stops and gives us sights never before seen on film. The depth of field provided by the 3-D process allows him to effectively impart how dire Pi's plight is, as we get a sense of how vast and seemingly endless the ocean is.

Equally impressive are the wonders the deep holds, as when we witness a school of jellyfish set the ocean aglow, giving the lifeboat an ethereal glow that suggests they've entered another plane of existence. These moments, as well as a visit from a blue whale, a stop at an island inhabited by thousands of meerkats and Parker himself, who is a digital creation for much of the time he's on screen, make the "Life of Pi" a true wonder to behold.

However, it is the spiritual journey the main character goes on and the conclusions he reaches that make it a film that will speak to your soul.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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