You can’t judge a film before the credits roll. Andrea Arnold’s brilliant and emotionally devastating adaptation of Wuthering Heights is the most recent film to hit me over the head with this knowledge. As I noticed fellow viewers get up and leave I couldn’t help but think about all the people who walk out of films without giving them a chance to reveal their characters or themes. When the lights went black and I sat alone, utterly devastated, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who walked out of Wuthering Heights after 15 or 30 minutes and missed the most powerful film of the year.
I can sort of understand why people walked out of Wuthering Heights without letting it’s heartbreaking story unfold. The film is very challenging and it felt like a chore to sit through. There’s hardly any dialogue because Arnold chose to use the film as an experiment. She wanted to see how much of the story she could tell using only images. The results are visually stunning and dreamlike. Arnold’s takes her trademark shaky-cam, kitchen sink visual style and combines it with insanely shallow focus to create something truly unique, beautiful, and visceral.
But the images are consistently shaky, and sometimes undistinguishable. The directoral choices started to feel a little pretentious because I wasn’t really feeling anything. The visual depiction of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship was intellectually stimulating, but I didn’t think I really cared what happened to them. Nothing was really happening, and I felt a little frustrated. Why wasn’t I feeling anything? Fish Tank left me shattered, but when Heathcliff choses to leave half way through the film I felt sort of numb.
But then the film jumps forward in time. Heathcliff is an adult and he’s returned to get the love his life back. When he’s waiting a garden to see her for first time in years it felt like a light switch was flipped inside of me. I felt something. And then she appears through the blurry trees and walks in slow motion into perfect focus. I felt all the pain and longing Heathcliff felt in that moment. But how was that possible?
I quickly realized the Andrea Arnold slowly and subtly created a very strong and intimate connection between myself and Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship. Instead of bashing me over the head with cliches and on the nose images of young love Arnold was simply showing a real, honest relationship develop the way it does in real life. And she wasn’t shying away from the raw and difficult parts a real relationship has. Instead, she focuses on it and reveals just how in love these two characters are.
People who walk out of films don’t allow filmmakers to spend their time telling subtle and thought provoking films.Without this incredibly precise direction, storytelling, and restraint the second half of Wuthering Heights wouldn’t have had the intense beauty and power it ultimately has. It allows us to simply feel the incredible tension in the second half the film without Arnold hitting us over the head with a hammer. As Catherine and Heathcliff continue to make bad decisions and hurt each other it hurts us just as much as it hurts them. The film doesn’t get any easier to watch. If anything, it gets harder because it breaks our heart little by little.
And then it shatters our heart in the final 20 minutes. There’s an event and the way one of the characters reacts is one of the must human and real reactions I’ve ever seen in a film, but it doesn’t end there. Some how Arnold raises the intensity the next scene and you think there’s no way she could ever top that, but then she does the next scene, and then the next scene. The final 20 minutes of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights are a never ending escalation of raw emotion and heartbreak that tore me into a million pieces, and I pitty anyone walked out of the film and missed something so human and true.