Not rated: contains profanity, brief sexual content and disturbing images
British director Andrea Arnold's haunting new "Wuthering Heights" cuts beneath the romantic accretion of decades of movie and TV adaptations to penetrate the dark, heathen heart of Emily Brontë's 1847 novel.
Shot on location on North England's Yorkshire Dales, the movie presents the famous tragic love story between Heathcliff and Catherine as something elemental and wild: a product of the untamed moors, like the mist, the heather, the black bog that impedes progress and stains skin.
In place of music, the film is scored with an ever-present rush of wind: a susurration that might be evidence of a supernatural presence or an indecipherable ghostly message. It's the sound of air roaring through the impossible passage that connects the 21st-century audience to the 19th-century community resurrected with such artful yet almost documentary realism by Arnold and her collaborators.
Opening in limited release in the U.S. late last year after a successful film-festival run, "Wuthering Heights" screens here one time only, at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
The screening bodes well for movies in Memphis in 2013, and suggests that the Brooks will continue to bring in quality work that has been overlooked by commercial theater bookers, as happened in 2012 with "Le Havre," "The Mill and the Cross" and the animated "Chico & Rita," to name a few.
The most recent of at least a couple of dozen previous filmed adaptations, the new "Wuthering Heights" may surprise those familiar with the story from the classic 1939 Hollywood version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. Arnold's boldest decision here is to embrace the racial ambiguity of the "dark" Heathcliff character (in the novel as well as the new film, he is referred to as possibly a "lascar," or East Indian) and present Heathcliff as black, possibly even a runaway slave, with a back crisscrossed with scars. This, of course, emphasizes Heathcliff's status as an alien when he is brought to the isolated farm home of Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), who reports that he found Heathcliff homeless in the streets of Liverpool.
Adopting the boy was "the Christian thing to do," Earnshaw explains, as Heathcliff bares his teeth and snarls back at the unfriendly dog that greets him. Later, Heath
cliff reacts violently to his Christian baptism, as if the water in the font were scalding or poisonous.
Frequently, Arnold depicts Heathcliff as a literal outsider, staring through windows that tease him with views of the warm, cozy rooms that exclude him.
Not many rooms in this "Wuthering Heights" are cozy, however: The Earnshaws inhabit what is very much a working farm, a place of laboriously constructed rock walls and hard cold floors. The family is what now would be called dysfunctional, and the harshness of this life is emphasized by several distressing images of animal cruelty (accomplished without harming any animals, according to the BBC).
Less friendly even than the dog is Earnshaw's jealous, brutish son, Joseph (Steve Evets), who proves to be Heathcliff's nemesis. More friendly, of course, is the tomboyish, unruly Earnshaw daughter, Catherine.
Heathcliff and Catherine (played as young teenagers by Solomon Gave and Shannon Beer) become inseparable companions, as at home on the moors as are the piercing thistles and the doomed rabbits. The countryside they roam is wild and beautiful, captured in stunning, painterly compositions by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who also shot Arnold's previous features, "Red Road" and"Fish Tank").
Arnold presents the film in the once standard, now unconventional 4:3 aspect ratio: the more or less square picture image commonly referred to as "full frame," and also used recently for "The Artist." The moors might have benefited from widescreen lensing, but Arnold apparently wanted to ensure that the landscape didn't overwhelm her characters. Frequently, the close camera follows Heathcliff and Catherine on the run, like an intimate attendant spirit.
The final hour of the film, which presents a successful and sophisticated adult Heathcliff (James Howson) and a respectable, well-behaved Catherine (Kaya Scodelario), is less compelling than the first, in part because the elegant rooms of Catherine's new home lack the visual appeal of the druidic outdoors and in part because the model-beautiful adult actors seem less a product of this environment than their younger counterparts.
A closing credits song by Mumford & Sons is perfectly fine on its own terms, but it breaks the spell of "authenticity" — spell being an apt word, considering the film's witchcraft-like atmosphere. Better to have ended with one of Catherine's a cappella folk ballads, such as "Barbara Allen," which the girl sings early in the film — a tale of graves and briars that likely was almost as inspirational for Arnold as Brontë's prose.
"Wuthering Heights" screens at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Brooks. Admission is $8, or $6 for museum members.
For advance tickets or more information, call 901-544-6208 or visit brooksmuseum.org.