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TIFF 2011: Wuthering Heights

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TIFF 2011
What’s your favourite film at the Festival?
Highlighting: Wuthering Heights

By Marc Glassman
September 14, 2011

Every year at TIFF, the big question is: what’s your favourite film? In a way, it’s a trick query. In a festival context, you can’t pick something that reeks of pop culture–it might make you appear to be shallow. Nor can you can be overly obscure–unless you don’t mind being attacked as an elitist.

Most critics and true cinephiles spend the festival in an often-fruitless search for an eye-popping masterpiece. If one isn’t located, they have to decide on something that is artful but not obscure, appealing to a festival sensibility, without pandering to the “crowd.”

Although the festival is only at its halfway point, I’ll go out on a limb and choose my favourite: Wuthering Heights. I’m happy to admit that Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece is unlikely to be popular and may, in fact, be accused of being pretentious.

Arnold boldly removes all the glamour that has become attached to the novel. Her Wuthering Heights is a country house–hardly a mansion–and it’s surrounded by the muck and mud one deals with in such places. Heathcliff is no longer a mysterious gypsy; now, he’s black, presumably from Africa. And Cathy is a farm girl, not an aristocrat. The other characters–Edgar Linton, Hindley, Isabella–are reduced to small, stock figures. And Arnold removes much of the dialogue from the book.

So, why do I like it so much?

Andrea Arnold has reduced the novel to its essence, the fatal love that glorifies and destroys the lives of Heathcliff and Cathy. Who cares about the Lintons? People read the Bronte for its unforgettable account of a passionate, destructive love that wreaks havoc on two people–and all the unfortunates who share lives with them.

Arnold depicts Heathcliff and Cathy as real people: strong willed–and willful–country folk from a different century. There’s nothing sophisticated about their passion for each other. In scene after scene, we see them rolling in the mud together, or riding horses through the wind, or running through the rough hillsides of the Moors.

The Moors themselves become part of Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. If some of the side characters have been abandoned as a fully envisioned figures, they’ve been more than replaced by the landscape. Few filmmakers have done as well as Arnold in evoking the lush, green terrain of the Moors and its wildlife: rabbits and sheep and foxes and squirrels.

At a wonderful moment in Wuthering Heights, Cathy makes Heathcliff lie high up on the rocks and tilt his head down to fully appreciate the primitive beauty of the Moors. They are the Moors right then, just as Cathy famously states in the book “I am Heathcliff.”

Rarely have I been so caught up in a tale of “l’amour fou.” Andrea Arnold has done well by Emily Bronte. One can only hope that a North American distributor will agree and that Wuthering Heights defies the odds to become a cult hit both here and abroad.

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