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The story of Heathcliff, an orphaned outsider found on the streets of Liverpool and given a home by a benevolent farmer, Mr. Earnshaw. Heathcliff develops a passionate romantic relationship with the farmer's teenage daughter, Catherine, inspiring the distrust and envy of her volatile brother, Hindley. Years later, when the elder Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff, Catherine, and Hindley, now adults, must at long last confront the intense feelings and destructive rivalries which have developed between them.
For more about Wuthering Heights and the Wuthering Heights Blu-ray release, see Wuthering Heights Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on May 8, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Oliver Milburn, Nichola Burley, Amy Wren, James Northcote
Director: Andrea Arnold
» See full cast & crew
Wuthering Heights Blu-ray Review
Brontë Laid Bare
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, May 8, 2013
A swoon-worthy story of mis-fated love on the foggy Yorkshire moors, Emile Brontë's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights was practically written cinema-ready, primed for big screen frock drama adaptation with all the bells and whistles—the sweeping romance, the lavish costumes, the manners and manors and libido-surging sexual repression. It most memorably got this treatment with director William Wyler's 1937 film, starring Laurence Olivier as the byronic hero Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as his obsession, Catherine, and subsequent versions—with Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder- Marshall in 1970, and Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in 1992—have been grand if fairly conventional costume movies, lowercase-r-romantic and saccharinized to suit the palettes of audiences expecting more entertainment than literary insight. Director Andrea Arnold's adaptation, however, takes a much different approach. Inflecting the tale with the grim social realism of her previous films—Red Road and Fish Tank—Arnold strips off all frilly artifice and presents Wuthering Heights as a starkly and compellingly bare Gothic mood piece, bogged in the muck of rural 19th century English life.
The most immediate change Arnold makes here is by casting Heathcliff—whom the novel describes somewhat ambiguously as a "dark-skinned gypsy"—with actors of African descent, giving this version sharp overtones of the complicated racial attitudes in colonialist, Regency-era England, where the slave-trade was only newly abolished. First-timer Solomon Glave plays the teenaged Heathcliff, found wandering the streets of Yorkshire and taken in by Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), a poor farmer who lives in the eponymous house on the moors and considers this adoption "the Christian thing to do." We see scar lines on Heathcliff's back in a brief early shot—a bit of wordless exposition that says everything we need to know—and Earnshaw's racist son Hindley (Lee Shaw) further abuses the boy, whose presence in the home he doesn't understand or accept.
However, Heathcliff quickly forms a bond with Earnshaw's daughter, Catherine—played in youth by Shannon Beer—and the first half of the film develops their awkward, impassioned relationship, part adopted sibling tenderness, part hormonal puppy love. Arnold's slice-of-life approach is spare on dialogue—in contrast to the notoriously wordy source novel—preferring to emphasize quiet moments between the two kinda-sorta lovers. They wrestle in the mud semi-sexually. They traipse to the top of a windy knoll to watch the valley below at dusk. In one odd and excruciatingly intimate scene, Catherine literally licks Heathcliff's wounds, which Hindley—now the master of the house after his father's death—has cruelly re-inflicted with a whip. Social expectations keep the pair apart, though; Catherine trades forbidden love for future comfort by agreeing to marry the rich-but-boring Edgar Linton (James Northcote), and the heartbroken Heathcliff flees to the city to find success as a self-made man.
He returns wealthy six years later, now played by James Howson, and the film's second half becomes a study in obsession, with Heathcliff initially determined—as he tells the grown-up Catherine (Kaya Scodelario)—to "see your face, get revenge on Hindley, and then kill myself." Seeing her, though, he doubles-down his efforts to win her back, going so far as to become romantically entangled with Catherine's sister-in-law, Isabella (Nichola Burley), an ill-inspired move that's meant to provoke jealousy. As in the novel, Heathcliff is no saint; he broods, he's got a selfish streak—born of his I- have-to-fight-for-myself status as an outsider—and he has a disturbing tendency to take out his anger on animals, like when he hangs Isabella's dog on a fence by its collar. He's an almost vampiric figure—single-minded, impossibly intense, sucking the life out of the woman he loves.
Without sacrificing the kitchen-sink realism she establishes in the tone and crude dialogue, Andrea Arnold really plays up the story's mouldering Gothic Romanticism, particularly in regard to the darker aspects of Heathcliff's eternal infatuation—his corpse-cuddling and grave-digging—which will have you tensing up and squirming uncomfortably in your seat. (Also, look out for the split-second, you'll-know-it-when-you-see-it shot of bone-chilling ghostly terror, which begs the question of what an Andrea Arnold horror movie might look like.) The visuals match the funereal mood. Arnold's Yorkshire moors rarely see a sunny day. There's mud everywhere. The image is bled of color. Heather grows wild and lichen covers everything, but it all looks long-dead. Even Arnold's choice to use the near-square Academy aspect ratio—along with tight closeup point-of-view shots—suggests constraint and suffocation. There are times when we beg the image to open up into glorious widescreen, but the withholding is all part of the film's internal tension.
It should go without saying that this is no Jane Austen, happy-ever-after period piece—nor should it be—and that those expecting a quaint Masterpiece Theatre-style production will probably find themselves wondering exactly what they're watching. From the handheld cinematography to the raw performances—many by non-professional actors discovered in open casting calls—this is Wuthering Heights laid bare. Not everyone is comfortable with this level of figurative nudity, but those who are will find a film of intense beauty and feeling.
Wuthering Heights Blu-ray, Video Quality
The first thing you'll probably notice about Wuthering Heights is the decision—somewhat unusual nowadays—to frame the picture in the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1, which results in black bars on the sides of a widescreen 16:9 television. (Unlike the U.K. Blu-ray release, Oscilloscope's version is also slightly windowboxed, with black bars on the top and bottom as well, perhaps to prevent overscan issues.) In an interview with indiewire.com, Arnold says she prefers this ratio "because my films are mostly about one person. I'm following that one person and I'm keen on that one person. It's a very respectful and beautiful frame for one person. It gives them a lot of space." This makes sense, and it works well for Wuthering Heights, even if—or, especially because, in another sense—the gorgeous landscapes call out for something closer to 2.35:1 Cinemascope.
The plus side of 1.33:1, from a more technical standpoint, is that no cropping of the top and bottom of the frame is needed, allowing the full negative to be used. This can result in a slight increase in clarity, and the film's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is certainly sharp, with a consistently strong level of high definition detail in faces, wooly clothing textures, and the heather and moss that covers the moors. As for color, the film's grading might best be described as beautifully dreary—slightly desaturated and with a preponderance for dingy browns and greens and grays. Contrast is generally excellent, although some of the darker interiors can be a bit intense, shadow-wise. (You might not want to watch this one during the daytime if you have a screen prone to glare.) Shot on 35mm, the image retains its natural grain structure here, and besides some brief shimmering on blades of grass and other extremely fine patterns, I didn't notice any picture quality problems whatsoever. A striking transfer, overall.
Wuthering Heights Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The other thing that separates Wuthering Heights from the usual frock drama aesthetic is that there's no score here to help us understand how to feel about any given scene. Instead, Arnold relies strictly on the natural sounds of her characters' environment. Thankfully, the sound design— encoded in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track—is excellent from start to finish, with immersive ambience filling in the sometimes long gaps between moments of conversation. Rain pours heavily and thunder rumbles. Wind whips across the moors, rustling tall grass. A twig raps on a windowpane. Horses gallop and sheep bleat. The house creaks in the silence of the night. It's all crisp and lifelike, with clean highs and adequate low-end where necessary. Dialogue is easy to understand too. The only instance of non-diegetic sound in the film—and this seems like a rare stylistic misstep on Arnold's part—is a too-obvious Mumford & Sons song that plays over the final scene and end credits. The disc also includes an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo fold-down mix and optional English SDH subtitles that appear in large, easy-to-read white lettering.
Wuthering Heights Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Wuthering Heights Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights is not your normal Victorian Women's Lit 101 adaptation—all superfluous period piece frippery has been burned away, leaving a scorched earth of raw emotion and ugly social realities. It's not what you might call easy viewing, but it's alive and real in a way that view films of this genre are, all while staying true to the themes and conflicts of Emily Brontë's novel. This is one of 2011's best films—from the ragged performances to the spartan script to the the gorgeously dreary cinematography—and I'm glad it got picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Pictures, which puts Criterion Collection-level thought into their Blu-ray releases. Here, you get beautiful matte cardboard packaging, a near-perfect high definition transfer, and a worthwhile video essay by Time Out New York critic David Fear. Highly recommended!
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• Wuthering Heights Blu-ray - February 10, 2013
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