Wuthering Heights (15)

A murky adaptation is flawed but full of passion.

Wuthering Heights (15)
dir: Andrea Arnold

Is Michael Fish busy these days? I can picture him standing outside cinemas where Andrea Arnold's new film is playing, providing consumer advice beyond the classification board's remit. If ever a film demanded its own weather forecast, it is this one. "Wuthering Heights", it says on the tin, but the Trade Descriptions Act would not kick up a storm if it were sold as a frugal remake of Twister.

Should you ever have found yourself in a hurricane without earmuffs, you will already have heard the film's soundtrack. Get the weather and the landscape right in Wuthering Heights and you are practically home and dry. Or wet. Lash goes the rain. Crash goes the barn door. Howl goes the wind, moaning and mith­ering like a god with toothache. Perhaps the wind is complaining that the film is only half an adaptation, not a Brontësaurus but a Brontë sawn in two. An unusual sort of spoiler alert is required here, a warning about what doesn't happen. Put it this way: the picture stops dead long before Heathcliff does.

The protective friendship that flourishes between Heathcliff and Cathy when the former is taken in by the latter's father is detailed patiently, down to the last pearl of dew on the moors where they play. The cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, operates a handheld judder-cam that breathes down Heathcliff's neck as he flees his own baptism and vaults over a wall with Olympic aplomb. This is swapped for a jockeycam when Heathcliff clings to Cathy on horseback: the image, already foreshortened by the film's unconventional square frame, becomes a whirlwind of Cathy's tangled hair, through which the blue sky gets only a sporadic look-in.

Rough-hewn is the order of the day. The lighting is so murky during the interior scenes that Kate Bush could have a walk-on as a stable hand and we'd all be none the wiser. Also, I'd like to touch a copy of the screenplay (credited to the director and Olivia Hetreed). I have reason to believe it was written on sandpaper. During Heathcliff's first meeting with the Lintons, the prosperous family into which Cathy marries, he berates those present with some frankly naughty words, including one very Naughtie one in particular. It's hard to imagine such language on the lips of some of those previously associated with the character (Laurence Olivier, Cliff Richard). However, Gordon Brown, a self-confessed Heathcliff-a-like, did spring to mind during the scene in which our hero bangs his head repeatedly against a wall.

Of the actors, most of whom weren't actors at all before the first snap of the clapperboard, James Howson and Kaya Scodelario have the rum deal: as the adult Heathcliff and Cathy, they feel listless next to Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, the fierce youngsters playing their junior selves. That's the risk with transplant casting: the characters can easily wilt and die in the handover. Beer is a lovely young bruiser whom you would be foolish not to back in a bareknuckle scrap. When the line on the page is "I like being dirty", it comes out of her mouth as: "Uh luck bin dirt-air." In the US, Gregory's Girl (1981) was revoiced entirely. I hope some Californian poppet isn't being lined up
to take the fizz out of Beer.

Early appraisals placing Arnold's work in the social-realist tradition were short-sighted. Her films are not Ken Loach - they're Cocteau, Terrence Malick, even Ovid, in their insistence on blurring the distinction between human beings and animals. If she has any spiritual forebears in British cinema, it is Powell and Pressburger, with their volatile sensuality bubbling over messily like forgotten stew. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wuthering Heights, which suggests I Know Where I'm Going! as much as it does Emily Brontë.

The film isn't perfect. In truncating the novel, Arnold might have gone the whole hog and turned the film over to the children. And why hold out for two stark hours without music, only to hand the final minutes of soundtrack time to Mumford & Sons, the Radio 2 mascots who are more whimpering than wuthering? (Was James Blunt not available?) And yet these are incidental errors. Arnold is as passionately driven as ever. She knows where she's going.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis