Bronte classic gets an unusual casting twist

DOZENS of films have already graced screens across Leeds this week as the city celebrates it 25th international film festival.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 10th November 2011, 9:57 am

Kicking off the opening gala was an adaptation of Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights – a masterpiece which has tortured generations of GCSE and A-level students desperately trying to understand its layers of verbose metaphor and allusions.

But if you’d plonked them down in front of Andrea Arnold’s version of events I doubt anyone would have got less than an A grade in their exams thanks to a constant assault of lingering shots that rather labour the point at times.

I never thought of Bronte’s work as a particularly hairy piece of literature but in Arnold’s hands there’s a rather heavy-handed fixation on tangled tresses, matted fur and coarse manes.

In small doses, the attention to detail is both touching and necessary.

The first time Heathcliff and Cathy touch is by way of sharing a horseback ride in what seems like a rather insignificant moment – until her hair tickles his face, sparking his first love-sick stare.

There’s very little in the way of fancy technology – the wilderness of the moors is captured by the stripped-down nature of the filming.

Stark white skies meet verdant green fields, hand-held cameras capture first person rambles over the hills, and if the camera crew had a wind muffler in the van, it certainly wasn’t used as they scaled the moors to capture breathtaking scenery.

The over arching sense of the wild – a key feature in the novel – is constant throughout. The characters snap with short tempers, the horses bray and rear uncontrollably, and the brisk winds batter the actors’ faces and often carry away their words.

Not that Heathchliff was ever particularly chatty – the scenes are punctuated with brusque Yorkshire put-downs and half-intelligable threats of violence but not much else.

But of all the oddities of the film, the one that jars most is the casting of Heathcliff with a black actor.

At the crux of Bronte’s novel was straight up class prejudice – Heathcliff was an outsider because he was poor and an orphan.

In Arnold’s adaptation, Hindley’s hatred towards Heathcliff is explained away with scenes of blatant and unrepeatable racism, which in my book was a pointless change in plot.

Bronte’s novel has survived quite well over the years without ripping out one of its most pertinent features.

Over in music documentary land, The Beat is the Law - Fanfare for the Common People, took the audience on decade-by-decade breakdown of Sheffield’s burgeoning music scene from the 70s to present day, putting Brit-poppers Pulp at its heart.

If you ever wondered what occupies the space between the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby and Pulp’s Common People, director Eve Wood can tell you.

Carefully weaving industrial revolt and its effect on the arts scene in the Steel City, The Beat is the Law takes you on a journey that stops off for a chat with Cabaret Voltaire, ABC and obscure house and dance acts, Chakk and Clock DVA.

For music buffs with a love for the bizarre, this social commentary on a South Yorkshire city’s battle with the death of its industries is an epic history lesson.

Golden Owl competition entrant, The Other Side of Sleep offers a truly disturbing account of a youngster’s battle with sleep deprivation.

In echoes of Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis, a teenager wakes in the woods wrapped in a duvet and lying next to a corpse.

She wanders through the film like a zombie, occasionally nodding off and waking up covered in scratches.

It’s never altogether clear what’s real and what’s fantasy – we’re led to believe she has committed a dreadful murder, but the film employs a dreamlike atmosphere which acts as a constant and confusing mistress throughout.

Finally – and I won’t labour too long on this point – the fact I fell asleep three times during Romanian new wave effort, Best Intentions, probably speaks louder than words.

While there were moments of pure absurdist theatre, not least a psychiatric patient who lurked magnificantly in the background wearing a rabbit mask, the monotony of the plot dragged the film into the ground.

As a fan of experimental cinema and a lover of the avant garde, it was a disappointment to see moments of brilliant camera work wasted on mundane dialogue.

See next week’s The Guide for more reviews from Leeds International Film Festival.