I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
–Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Anyone who knows the book Wuthering Heights knows of the atmosphere built up to the point that line appears in the novel. It’s hard to write about the latest cinematic adaptation of the book and not try to do the film justice in words without citing the source novel. British director Andrea Arnold captures the same atmosphere of that line in her film version. Raw and impressionistic, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights reaches beyond language and instead embraces the intimacy captured by the camera— focus, sound, light— to channel the feelings of the classic Victorian-era novel.

The feeling that this is not only a different type of adaptation of the book but a different kind of movie immediately becomes apparent in Arnold’s choice for the now rarely seen 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio. The framing of the images only adds to the intimacy of a book often treated as an epic period piece in the many cinematic adaptations that have come before Arnold’s version. But that does not mean she short-changes on beautiful imagery rich with expression.

Arnold plays with her depth of field focus to varied effect. Most often she keeps the focus so shallow the lens captures flakes of dust floating through the air with various sharpness, enhancing their depth in the air.  There are moments when the camera catches the shadow inside the clavicle of one of the actors, emphasizing skin and bone and the fragility of humanity. When young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave, humble and sensitive) receives beatings there is both a sense of futility and empathy welled up in the action. The struggle between blurs and sharp focus only serve to emphasize the intimacy of the film. Young Catherine Earnshaw’s (Shannon Beer relishing playing the wild child) desperate but futile attempts to stop the beatings is as painful as it feels because of how close the film brings us to the actors despite the few words they exchange and the spare drama used to set up their relationship.

Arnold’s imagery, via her regular cinematographer Robbie Ryan, recalls the expressive quality of Wong Kar-Wai. The camera relishes textures like nothing ever committed to film. When Catherine places a bridle over the head of a horse, the camera gives us a short glance of Catherine’s hand not only falling into the horse’s brown mane but also her thumb entering the beast’s ear. It’s a decision in action that makes the viewer consider texture on a deeper level, even though the camera lingers for only a brief, glancing second. The scene also emphasizes the importance of sound to capture atmosphere, from the horse’s snorts, to its subtle breathing, to its teeth on the bridle’s metal bit. The couple’s close connection is then established simply, as they share a ride on the back of the horse. Heathcliff smells her hair, which again taps into another sense to establish the film’s atmosphere. Watching the movie becomes an experience in synesthesia.

Despite the intimacy of many of the scenes, Arnold does not leave out the landscape. Very early in the film, she captures the dank, dreary atmosphere of life on the Yorkshire moors, a landscape often enveloped in heavy cloud banks. The wind is a powerful feature that howls over the slopes and in through the cracks of the farmhouse at the center of the film. The characters often slog and slip through mud to get to the front door of the house. Once inside, a twig taps on a windowpane, the wind still looking to possess the film. Murmured voices reading scripture also seep from one room to another, trying to penetrate these young heathens’ shared moments, but ghosts are little match for the heart beats of these two, which, at one point is felt through the bass of a theater’s sound system rather than heard: appropriate for a film about feelings over anything else.

Arnold’s Wuthering Heights features a mostly drab and dark color palette. But do not write the film off as simply wallowing in the dreary. Giant potions of bright whites often break up the imagery. There are also occasional splashes of dark versions of red, blue and green, which infuse scenes for an always exciting range that maintains a consistent, almost spectral atmosphere of a time long gone.

Finally, Arnold also tempers the melodrama by skipping on a musical score. The brilliantly recorded sound of breath, wind, voices heard through walls and the all-bass, but barely audible heartbeat, offers more keen sonic ambiance than one can hope for with such a film. To top it off, the dialogue remains spare. When Cathy says “I am Heathcliff,” the words impregnate the film with so much more than a simple tale of love and revenge. This is man’s existential struggle made manifest by two primal beings.

So what about the story, you may ask. All these elements come together to create something beyond a story, actually. The dynamic relationship between Cathy and a Heathcliff is there. The fact that the Heathcliff role is played by a black boy and later a black man (James Howson playing suppressed but dignified) might bother those seeking another traditional adaptation (what a dull notion). This casting in fact only highlights Heathcliff’s otherness in the Earnshaw household. When the boy is mistreated by Cathy’s older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw manifesting brooding menace) and Cathy can never do a thing, despite her attempts to fight back and scream, it only highlights the helpless state these two young people are in. Adding a further dose is how humans often treat animals. The animal-loving squeamish should be fairly warned: animal torture and death arises more than once in the film. However, it provides an important extension of the story’s primal quality.

The fact that Arnold put inexperienced actors in the major roles, besides older Cathy (minimally experienced, yet adequately ethereal Kaya Scodelario), adds to the film’s visceral quality. They may not emote to the subtle effect one might yearn for in a piece like this, but Arnold makes up for that with all that she does on a cinematic level. I return to the spare dialogue and the fact that these are beings struggling to grow up while patriarchal figures bully them with righteous, dated notions in an attempt to mold their psyches. “I am Heathcliff” is about empathy for the other. God help us if people cannot relate with that at this point in society. This film is a must for anyone looking for some soul in cinema, a la Beasts of the Southern Wild and anti-James Bond.

Hans Morgenstern

trailer:

Wuthering Heights is not rated (mannered but intense with animal brutality) and runs 129 minutes. It is now playing in the South Florida area theatrically, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach and the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned nationally over the next few months. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. The Miami Beach Cinematheque invited me to a screening for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Back when I had a weekly space of print in my college paper, Florida International University’s “The Beacon,” I had the chance to preview Kate Bush‘s 1993 album, the Red Shoes (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon). I had hoped to dig up that old review to see what my thoughts on the album were nearly 20 years ago now. It might have been interesting to compare my thoughts now on Bush’s re-imagining of several of the album’s tracks on her latest album, Director’s Cut (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon), which sees its official North American release today. It seems I no longer even have a computer file of it, much less an actual clipping.

I do recall that I had a lukewarm response to the Red Shoes, as I, like most casual fans of Bush, would always hold all her albums up against 1985’s Hounds of Love (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the nice vinyl reissue on Amazon). But now comes a Bush album that begs a comparison not only with the Red Shoes but also its predecessor, 1989’s the Sensual World (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon), as Director’s Cut is composed of a selection of songs from both albums.

The concept of this new album might seem audacious to some. But, coming from Bush, it should not come as a complete surprise. This is the same artist who re-recorded her vocals for her first hit single, 1978’s “Wuthering Heights,” for its inclusion in her 1987 hits compilation the Whole Story (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon).

Director’s Cut, takes that concept a step beyond, offering a look at a famously reclusive artist with her more popular years behind her. She was once up there in notoriety with Madonna in the early and mid-eighties (think today’s Lady Gaga and Katy Perry as far as recognition goes). But as a very well-read and quirky artist (she toured only once at the start of her 30+ career in support of an album), her appeal tended to the arty, more challenging side of rock, alongside artists like Peter Gabriel, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, whose guitarist, David Gilmour has been credited with discovering her.

Director’s Cut may even seem a bit excessive, characteristic of an OCD-type of artist, but it also reveals an artist still deeply invested in her work. Sometimes this sort of careful attention can produce respectable results. Look at the amount of time Gabriel spends on his music between albums and consistently delivers (except on maybe one occasion). But then it may seem a bit self-indulgent. This re-visioning of older songs in her catalog more closely recalls George Lucas’s efforts to remake the past by adding digital effects to his early Star Wars movies.

But Bush is not as ham-fisted an egomaniac as Lucas. What comes through Director’s Cut is an artist with tender respect for her original songs. Many Bush fans, or fans of the original albums, will be pleased to find the differences she has made are minimal. The soul of all the songs remains intact and sometimes more enhanced, as most of the new versions come across more luscious in general.

I do not normally feel inclined to take a track-by-track approach to my album reviews, but here comes an album that deserves such a close listen. Appropriately enough, you can also choose a deluxe version of the album that includes remastered versions of the original albums (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the deluxe edition on Amazon).

I had not listened to the Red Shoes nor the Sensual World in more than a decade, so I spent some time getting re-acquainted with them ahead of this review. According to Bruce Eder on the All Music Guide website Bush “re-cut all of her vocals and drums, and left virtually everything else unchanged.” That might be too pat a summary for this album, much less Bush’s approach to her intelligent pop music, as the majority of the re-workings cannot be so easily summed up.

Bush has done much more than simply re-record drums and vocals. She has given much more attention to the sound of the songs. The production has a delicate and affectionate touch behind it. On several occasions, the songs have aged well. The passage of time has added a depth to some themes, and Bush indulges in this, sometimes extending the songs with more patience than the original recordings. “Woman’s Work,” has nearly doubled in length and resonates more powerfully in the years that have passed since its original recording back in 1989. “Song of Solomon” also benefits from a more patient development.

The opening lines of “Deeper Understanding” works more powerfully in today’s age of social networking on the Internet than it did over 20 years ago: “As the people here grow colder/I turn to my computer/And spend my evenings with it like a friend.” To top it off, Bush has robotocized the chorus with a warped, more modern auto-tune effect. It’s a witty up-date to a song whose coda she also extends an extra couple of minutes with odd computer effects and a slow jam with drums, bass, harmonica and her own quirky voice. She also directed the video for it:

Sometimes, however, an indulgence in extending the songs works to their detriment. “Moments of Pleasure” spends too much time creeping into existence, leaving behind the romantic, wistful yet grand quality of the original. “The Sensual World,” now renamed “Flower of the Mountain,” featured Bush’s voice working at its peak, fluttering and whispering, doing sexy credit to the original title. The song was originally inspired by the ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the book on Amazon). When Bush was denied permission by Joyce’s estate to use words from the book, back in 1989, she wrote her own lyrics (read more on that here). For Director’s Cut, however, the Joyce family gave her their blessing to use the text. She re-titled the song to reflect the changed lyrics that are now a sort of collaboration with Joyce, as originally envisioned by Bush, and you cannot argue the words of Joyce do take the song to another level. Too bad her voice is not what it used to be in the eighties.

Another song that suffers due to it’s re-interpretation is “Rubberband Girl,” which closes Director’s Cut. The new version sounds a bit uneventful, bouncing along on a reserved acoustic guitar rhythm. The original featured a shameless, over-the-top energy and, again, the voice of Bush that I miss most on this new record.

Though you cannot deny the passage of 20 years time on a singer’s voice, there are moments that her matured voice  (she is 52, btw) enhances the music. “Lily” is no longer the dull trudge it used to be. It has a new-found power thanks to Bush screaming and growling up front.

The differences in the other tracks are more subtle. “The Red Shoes” has a more open, expansive sound. Otherwise, it is very similar to the original. “Never be Mine” feels almost as subdued as the original. It might feature a different bass effect. If so, the change is subtle. But even on the Sensual World “Never be Mine” had a weak presence, and on Director’s Cut it again suffers a similar fate.

“Top of the City” sounds very similar to the 1993 version, though it sounds a bit grander in its original form on the Red Shoes. The new version grows a bit too hushed during its quiet moments, getting lost in its softness. Finally, “And So Is Love” is another mellow tune that features a very minimal change. Bush chucks the original’s electronic beat, and her voice once again comes across more energetic on the original version.

The Director’s Cut becomes a sort of mixed bag when you compare it to the originals. Some of the songs have benefited with age and certainly show maturity. However, there are several that seem quite uneventful. But I am sure serious Kate Bush fans will have a more heightened sense of the changes. Plus, the quality of the song craft from Bush certainly stands above much of today’s pop music. How many of today’s popular artists can make a career in music by referencing classic literature like Ulysses and— at the start of her career— Wuthering Heights?

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)