Tag Archive: Wuthering Heights


I’ve never read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; so if you were hoping for an informed perspective, you should click on to the next thing. (I refuse to feel bad – I’m watching At the Movies right now and Margaret is admitting she’s not qualified to review Ted because she’s never seen Family Guy.) But in assessing Emily Arnold’s feature-film adaptation, I’m not sure it matters whether I’ve read it or not. I’m not even sure  it would matter whether Arnold had ever read it. Her film approaches adaptation as an extreme sport. The story’s themes, characters and plot are present in what is presumably a recognizable shape, like points on a constellation, but otherwise complete liberty is taken. Perhaps this is expected these days; Shakespeare is adapted so freely on both stage and screen in contemporary times that we’re actually surprised by more traditional interpretations. But Hollywood and BBC costume dramas based on classic novels follow such a standard form that I guess there’s still a bit of shock left to mine from re-interpretation with contemporary aesthetics and values. Either that, or Arnold is particularly good at ruffling middlebrow feathers, because her version of Wuthering Heights has been called controversial, difficult and dark. It’s certainly dark, I’ll give you that. I liked it quite a lot.

Brontë’s 1847 novel is known for its bleakness and strangeness anyway, and was already controversial upon publication. Clearly Arnold felt she had to get even weirder in order to register the same impact. In her hands, the tale has become something beyond Gothic – primal, elemental, brutal. Whether life on the Yorkshire moors of the 19th century was as grim and downright Medieval as it’s depicted here is up for discussion. But there’s almost no doubt we’ve been kidding ourselves with our sanitized versions of Dickens and Austen; life in northern Europe at any time, and for any class of people, before the inventions of indoor plumbing and electric light would have probably seemed pretty grimy and, well, dark to us. So this film exaggerates (maybe) to make a point. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (which I love) leans a bit in this direction, with dark interiors, a tomboyish and messy-haired Elizabeth, and gaggles of farm animals running around the periphery of the rather scruffy Mr Bennett’s country house. Arnold’s film makes that one look very tame.

I saw Wuthering Heights late one rainy Friday night towards the end of Sydney Film Festival. I was alone, tired and in a bad mood. I sat in the front row of the State Theatre, which never seemed so cavernous and absurdly ornate. It was the perfect way to absorb, or rather to be absorbed in, the film’s chilly, haunted atmosphere. It’s not only the way Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan create such an evocative world onscreen – an unearthly place where the wind always blows, where the distant sunlight glints off the raindrops and pale purple heather and hardly warms the wood and brick dwellings. It’s the way they make that world seem so real and tangible (and achingly beautiful) – with softly focused closeups of rough-hewn wood, rough fabric, dirty hands, flowers, birds and animals, warped glass refracting external forms like ghosts.

The characters seem like ghosts inhabiting this place. They’re not always in focus; we don’t always understand what they’re saying. They nearly always seem to be cold and wet (even indoors) and unhappy. Two of the young ones, a young lady named Catherine and Heathcliff, a foster child who is treated like a servant, develop an animal affection for one another that blossoms into love. They steal a little time in between harsh, gutteral reprimands from Catherine’s stern male relatives to explore the delicate, primordial miracle of their feelings, before everything falls apart and everyone dies or goes home miserable.

Sure, Heathcliff’s black. Sure, the young Catherine dresses like a neurotic art student, with trousers under her skirts and a beat-up cardigan. Sure, her brother has a shaved head, and he and Heathcliff talk to each other like yobs from contemporary Liverpool. But it’s not that Arnold is just casually asking “Why not?” She doesn’t seem to be playing around with the iconography of the novel for a good laugh; her commitment to its creepy, doomed Romanticism is total. More than any recent literary adaptation, its anachronisms force us to ponder the set of aesthetic or cultural signs that define “history”, or what distances us from the past. Other than the odd electric cable and a few plastic microchips, what separates our world from the bleak, lonely world in which Emily Brontë lived and wrote anyway? Didn’t we simply inherit its cruelty, its racism and its messed-up notions of love? Maybe it’s time we stop kidding ourselves?

Anyway, I got pretty wrapped up in Arnold’s vision, though there are weak spots. The largely unknown leads inhabit their roles with conviction, but the acting falters in the crucial later scenes. And I admit the grottiness goes overboard – the scene in which a playful romp in the rain between Heathcliff and Catherine devolves into a mudwrestling bout is a bit too precious; the scene where she licks his wounds (after he’s beaten with a whip) too indie-grimy. But it never lost me completely; and the film’s excesses seem perfectly in line with the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, which was pretty freaky in the first place (think Edgar Allan Poe, incest, necrophilia, premature burials, etc.) About the worst to be said of the film is that the characters are often swallowed up in the blurry, almost Expressionist atmosphere. But with atmosphere this good, I’m not sure that’s a knock. Certainly it’s destined to be a slumber-party classic among lonely Goth-minded youngsters for years to come, and I mean that as high praise.

Anyway, I’ll probably read the novel soon.

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Decisions, decisions

It’s that time of year again. The air turns crisp, the ground is covered with pink and white cammellia petals, and it’s time to book tickets for 20 films at Sydney Film Festival with my staff Flexipass.

I’ve been the program editor at SFF for three years now. It so happens I’m one of the first to hear about the film program during the gruelling weeks of putting together the print guide. One interesting film after another appears on my radar while I’m hard at it, and I barely have time to think, much less plan what to see. Then my deadlines pass, work slows down, and there’s that delicious moment when I sit down with the guide – my handiwork – and, armed with an orange highlighter, start choosing the films I’ll be checking out in June.

OK, so I work for SFF, but this is not some kind of obnoxious insider’s rant. I’m lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective, but I’m a punter when it comes to seeing and writing about the films – most of which have only screened at overseas festivals I can’t afford to attend.

So these are the 20 films I’ve settled on, in the order I plan to see them. They are largely, but not necessarily, what I’m guessing will be the 20 best at the fest. I have to make hard choices, and some films get tragically left out because they clash with my schedule. I might hedge a bet because I know a certain film will get released or someone will get me a copy; I might be avoiding overdoing it in a certain section or genre (especially Freak Me Out, always a temptation); or it could be down to supporting Australian films over others. Screenings at the State Theatre definitely have priority. It’s a game in itself, and the end result is always a strange cat’s cradle of marked-up sessions.

The vagaries of the festival calendar mean that on some days I’ve only booked one film, while on others I have up to four to watch back to back – an ambitious but foolhardy feat which only results in delirium and confusion even in the geekiest hardcore cinephiles. But somehow things always work out – I end up skipping a screening here, hustling tickets for another there, something unexpected becomes my new favorite movie ever, and the festival always turns out to be a blast…

Always a blast

My Flexipass 20:

  1. La pirogue (Thursday, 7 June, 2:20pm, Event Cinemas) – The first full day of the festival begins for me with a film from Senegal that’s set to screen at Cannes next week and will almost certainly not get a commercial run here. To me that’s where it’s at. Not to make some hokey statement about the superiority of “real-life stories” – for starters I don’t even believe that; I like my stories to be a lot weirder than real life. But if I have to choose, I’ll take a film about African boat refugees starring unknown or nonprofessional actors over a lot of other more ballyhooed festival fare.
  2. Caesar Must Die  (Thursday 7 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, in competition here, this mix of documentary and drama is set in a Roman prison, where the inmates are staging a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Golden Bear winners have been some of my faves of recent years, and the premise just sounds cool.
  3. Killer Joe  (Thursday 7 June, 9pm, Event Cinemas) – From ace guest programmer Richard Kuipers’ Freak Me Out section, this looks to be the kind of sleazy and violent but intelligent (and even subversive) thriller I would have eaten up as a kid late at night on Cinemax. Directed by William Friedkin (!!), featuring a rumored great performance from Matthew McConaughey, this sounds like an excellent chaser for Caesar Must Die.
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild and
  5. Moonrise Kingdom (Friday 8 June, 6:30pm and 8:30pm, State Theatre) – This is the evening at the festival I’m looking forward to most: a double dose of magical Americana screening at the truly awesome State; one from a new director (Benh Zeitlin) riding a wave of acclaim at Sundance, the other from freaking Wes Anderson. Both feature child protagonists and and culminate in third-act storms; one stars Bruce Willis and the other does not (but, hey). These were my top choices from the get, and they’re screening back to back; I can’t imagine a better double feature.
  6. Lore (Saturday 9 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – An Australian competition film is almost a must-see; but Cate Shortland’s latest has a decidedly un-Aussie setting and I have to admit I’m more curious than usual: it’s a drama about German refugee children and the Jewish kid who helps them at the end of World War II.
  7. Tabu (Sunday 10 June, 7:15pm, State Theatre) – This black-and-white competition title from Portugal is a mix of drama and adventure split into two narratives, one of which is set in colonial Africa. The wife loved it and said I should not miss it, so there we are.
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Monday 11 June, 4:15pm, State Theatre) – I’m a sucker for Turkish cinema, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meditation on crime and punishment is one of the most talked-about Turk titles in years; cannot miss a screening of it at the State.
  9. The Warped Forest (Monday 11 June, 9 pm, Event Cinemas) – Another entry from Freak Me Out, this fantasy/horror piece is apparently one of the weirdest movies of recent years – and solely given the fact that it’s from Japan, I don’t see how there can be a ceiling on that claim. I picture something like a live version of Miyazaki, with elements of early Cronenberg. (Actually, it’s also a leading contender for “Film I’m Most Likely to Skip Because I Decided It Would Be Too Weird.”)
  10. The King of Pigs (Tuesday 12 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – This violent animated Korean thriller about class conflict in high school is actually screening in competition; it therefore has a cool dark-horse status (of course it’s not going to win! animation’s for kids!) that automatically makes me want to support it over other films.
  11. Postcards from the Zoo (Wednesday 13 June, 8:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – Indonesian weirdness from “maverick” one-named director Edwin, about a girl raised in a zoo who falls in love with a magical cowboy. What’s not to like here?
  12. Dead Europe (Thursday 14 June, 6:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Must-see Aussie competition title part 2; this one from director Tony Krawitz, about a guy from Sydney who digs into his family’s past in Greece only to discover ghosts and curses. Sounds all right to me. From a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap. Screening back-to-back with The Loneliest Planet (below), forming a promising double feature about travel and alienation.
  13. The Loneliest Planet (Thursday 14 June, 8:45pm, State Theatre) – Gael García Bernal stars in a story about a romantic hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia that goes all wrong. Gael always chooses good screenplays, and this one dovetails with my cinematic fascination with the Near East and Asia Minor.
  14. Barbara (Friday 15 June, 2pm, Event Cinemas) – For a number of reasons, when it comes to choosing films I find myself drawn to almost any other region before Europe. But I figured I should get at least a couple of Euro titles in, and this one, a drama from director Christian Petzold about an East German woman doctor exiled to a country backwater in 1980, seems pretty promising for reasons I can’t articulate. It might be the haunting melancholy of the vintage Cold War setting; or it might be the promo stills of the rather cute Nina Hoss riding a bike.
  15. Death for Sale (Friday 15 June, 4:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This Moroccan neo-noir thriller about a band of small-time crooks has been praised to heaven since it premiered at Toronto last year. For some stupid reason I missed it at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where I also work and where part of its funding came from. Maybe it was meant to be, because now it’s the first in my planned triple feature about violence and honor on the festival’s last Friday.
  16. Retaliation (Friday 15 June, 6:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This 1968 yakuza “bullet ballet,” part of the retrospective of exploitation flicks from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio (celebrating its 100th anniversary) was one of my top picks anyway, but coming right after Death for Sale makes it even more obvious.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Friday 15 June, 9pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This one from Takashi Miike will conclude a possibly exhausting triple feature with lots of eviscerations in 3D. This was a tough choice, because I have no interest in seeing it in 3D – but I didn’t want to miss another epic samurai flick from Miike, whose 13 Assassins was one of the highlights of the last festival. (And as it happens, the one 3D title I saw last year, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was also one of the best, so here’s hoping those two trends work together.)
  18. Neighbouring Sounds (Saturday 16 June, 11:45am) – This competition film from Brazil just seems to be all about the stuff I’m into lately: naturalism, meditations on architecture and urban decay, Brazilian chicks getting high, abstract sound design, waterfalls of blood, etc. Anyway I love watching the more out-there competition films in the morning.
  19. The Angels’ Share (Saturday 16 June, 8:40pm, State Theatre) – Ken Loach, booze, dudes in kilts.
  20. Wuthering Heights (Sunday 17 June, 2:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Emily Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic has gotten very mixed reviews but it sounds like strong stuff either way. Turns out I haven’t read the book, so that’s not a factor (the way it would be with, say, Jane Austen). But I like what I hear about the bleak, primal, postmodern depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire.

Animation’s for kids

Most painful exclusions (must see about taxing the wife’s Flexipass): Safety Not Guaranteed (not by choice – turns out I’m busy on Closing Night), Marley (I’m a itinual fan, of course, but I imagine I’ll have a chance to see it again), Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (easily the best title in the festival), The Parade (might be missing a goldmine of dry Balkan humor), Dreams of a Life (doco about a woman whose corpse was found in her London apartment three years after she died)Modest Reception (Iranian situationism run amok), Livid (more Freak Me Out awesomeness), Searching for Sugar Man (Sundance audience award-winning doco about “lost” ’70s soul singer Rodriguez), Undefeated (Oscar-winning football doco), OK, Good (indie psychological thriller in Freak Me Out), A Simple Life (universally acclaimed Hong Kong drama about a retired housemaid).

Titles I’ve already seen and love, like or at least recommend: Rampart, Polisse, Policeman, Headshot, Today, Monsieur Lazhar, Goodbye, Alps, Where Do We Go Now?

Stray cat rock?