Andrea Arnold’s new take on Wuthering Heights took this year’s Cannes Film Festival by storm. It’s only her third movie and follows Red Road, which won the Cannes Jury Prize in 2006 and Fish Tank which won the same prize in 2009. Quite a start to a film career.
Wuthering Heights attracted praise for its earthy, gritty and radical approach to a popular (and much filmed) classic. There’s none of the sentimentality of many commercial cinema adaptations here: the Earnshaw farm is small, dirty and run-down; the treatment of Heathcliff by Hindley Earnshaw is vividly brutal; rabbits are stabbed, have their necks broken with sickening cracks and dogs are hung up by their necks wire fencing; the moors are cold, misty and dark. The broad dialect dialogue rarely moves beyond short, monosyllabic sentences. There’s hardly a scene which isn’t gruesome, mucky, brutal or racked by passions.
The movie has been generally very well reviewed although I wasn’t wholly convinced by it. I somehow felt is was almost too consciously an anti-film movie, as if Arnold had made a list of all the features of commercial adaptations and resolved to do the opposite (“Sunning ladscapes? OK, ours will be misty, rainy, dank and dark”). The result was a little lack of subtlety.
But what do I know. I just wanted to draw your attention to the work of Robbie Ryan, the film’s photographer. Photographers don’t often spend time looking at the work of film cameramen - a pity, since they have a lot to teach still camera people.
Ryan, a former Talking Heads frontman who was born in Ireland and now lives in the US, has a long list of films to his credit including Red Road. His work in Wuthering Heights is remarkable. There is a “hide what you want to show” quality about what he has done in this film. He often chooses to show his subjects in half-light or their faces partially obscured. In a key scene in which Kathy tells Heathcliffe she is resolved to marry Linton, he is shown sharply shadowed and she is almost completely veiled. Many times the subject is out of focus or thrown indistinct by narrow depth of field choice while some foreground subject - normally natural, like trees or grass - retain sharp focus. Unsteady camera work is also used to follow the protagonist around.
Many scenes are underexposed, for reasons which should by now be clear, but a few are startlingly overexposed. When Heathcliff returns after several years to find Catherine (one of the few sunny scenes), the sun blasts the picture into bright white and lingers there for several seconds. Very powerful.
Perhaps most remarkable is Ryan’s choice of viewpoint. Many scenes are filmed from ground level and the view is regularly obscured by foliage. The effect is not just to ground the movements and actions of the subject in a physical sense but, equally, in a moral sense. We feel that Heathcliffe, Catherine and certain Hindley rarely rise above the ground in the quality of their thoughts and words. It is very disconcerting.
But back to blur. Photographers are obsessed with sharpness. The reason is probably that accidental blur looks awful. If you want to use out of focus, you need to plan carefully and make sure the result looks like you meant it. As most photographers aren’t taught how to take out of focus images, their results are - well, awful. Making a great out of focus image takes as much skill as a “pin sharp from back to front” image (to quote the competition judge cliche). And oftentimes much more effective.
This still from the movie gives some idea, but take a look at the video trailer at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEttxmXmPYA.
Go see the film!
There’s an interview with Robbis Ryan on IMDb at http://www.iftn.ie/news/?act1=record&aid=73&rid=4284447&tpl=archnews&only=1