Wuthering Heights: A Study in the Exquisite Pleasures of Pain

by: Emily Kirkpatrick

September 16, 2012

Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights was shown for the first time in New York at a screening in the Soho House, and presented a faithful re-imagination of Emily Brontë’s classic novel.  The love story, starring Kaya Scodelario, of Skins fame, and newcomer James Howson, follows the ill-fated lovers Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff from childhood well into young adulthood.

The incredible cinematography of the film, which was given the Best Cinematography award at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, created an element of intensity and intimacy in Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship that might have otherwise been lacking. The extreme close-ups of Catherine’s hair and Heathcliff’s face simultaneously suggested the extreme physical and emotional proximity between the two, but also a miniscule, yet impenetrable distance that they’ll never be able to bridge.

The film’s scenes are intercut with beautiful, transcendent shots of nature; bugs struggling against glass, sweeping, empty landscapes, and branches violently tapping against windows fill the screen. The montage of immense natural images juxtaposed with the extreme simplicity of the inhabitant’s dwellings and day-to-day existence emphasized the unbridled brutality that underlies this whole story and is only thinly veiled by a pretense of civility and culture. The brutality exists not only in the violence and beatings each character endures, but also in their happiness and their love. It seems for Heathcliff and Catherine love is not love unless the pain is excruciating. Both are most truly in love with the other when they’re being subjected to the agonies of physical beatings, kept at a distance from one another, or playing psychological games to test the other’s fidelity.

The film is slow, as is the novel, but that is precisely the point. The wait, the longing, and the anticipation that is never satisfied are exactly what make Wuthering Heights so poignant and heartbreaking. The viewer experiences all of the suffocating closeness and sick obsession in their relationship, which is then amplified tenfold by the unbearably slow passing of time, right alongside Heathcliff and Catherine. The continual poor timing, misunderstandings, and unfulfilled longing that exists between these two over the course of two hours is absolutely maddening and infuriatingly unavoidable. But then again, this is perhaps the greatest mark of a powerful film, the ability to fully transport an audience into the world of its characters, even against the viewer’s will.

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