Arnold is known (and loved) for her risky, uncommercial, gritty and quintessentially British filmmaking; she shocked with Red Road and impressed with Fish Tank, while here, in her trademark style, she extends the parameters of what can be shown in a Victorian period drama. “Drama” is the operative word here – compared to the anodyne Jane Eyre, released earlier this year, Heights excels in scenes palpably charged with emotion.
The aspect of Arnold’s rendition that most brings this out is the cinematography. I wonder if any film this year will surpass Heights in this field (pun unintended); windswept moors and weathered hills, terrifying yet eerily beautiful, are remarkably evoked by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, while tiny sonic details such as a horse being fitted with a bridle enhance the effect of synaesthesia that gives the film its visceral power. Unlike most period dramas, the lighting is terrifically realistic – many of the scenes early on, before the lovers have become truly enlightened, are shrouded in impenetrable darkness – while (thank God!) no weeping strings or cascading pianos grace the score. Indeed, there appears to be no score, which complements the theme of elementalism. This compensates for the atrocity of closing the film with Mumford & Sons’ “Enemy” – why? A meagre attempt at commercialising a hard sell? I still haven’t figured it out. Arnold should have kept the film sans soundtrack. If it ain’t broke…
Even if her taste in film-music is inexcusable, it looks like she’s been watching the right directors. Heights’ directorial style appears to have been principally informed by Nicolas Roeg and Lars von Trier: the depiction of thwarted love in a ruthless physical environment has been strongly influenced by (if not cribbed from) Walkabout, especially with the close-ups of animals and natural formations, and the shaky handheld camerawork is redolent of Dogme 95. Unfortunately, the handheld element becomes too self-conscious after a while, somewhat undermining the realism, but it is crucial in showing us the flame of passion that jumps and quivers between Cathy and Heathcliff. Their love is realism, but not as we know it.
Well, at least in the first half it is. Arnold sticks by her tradition of not casting famous stars (Fish Tank’s Michael Fassbender wasn’t as well-known back in 2009), preferring to use ordinary people who really can act. And her choices here were effective: Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, 13 and 12 years old respectively, play Heathcliff and Cathy superbly. Glave makes the young protagonist both brooding (at that age!) and hugely sympathetic, while Cathy’s love, at that stage dithering between sisterly and physical, appears palpable and moving. Unfortunately, the actors are somewhat let down by their older counterparts, whose performances are not as well-realised as they could have been. We identify less with the emotionality of the couple’s profound love, and thus Cathy’s death is less devastating. Kaya Scodelario is good in places but does not sustain an emotive performance; James Howson is better, and has made waves by being “the first black Heathcliff!”, but does not fully communicate his tortured character’s pain. When he flings himself against the wall again and again, it’s far too self-conscious.
Self-consciousness is one of the main problems I have with the film – it knows it’s deviating from the straight-and-narrow, and seems pretty pleased with itself for doing so. Nevertheless, a Brontë adaptation that is unafraid of showing children hanging dogs and a man repeatedly committing some serious self-harm deserves recognition. The fact that the first three chapters of the book are omitted demonstrates the focus on tone and atmosphere, rather than blind loyalty to the source material. Arnold has crafted an imaginative, sensually exquisite film that is, for the first half at least, incredibly powerful.