Breaking into Hollywood is never easy, but in the 21st century it’s still especially difficult if you’re a woman. A study produced earlier this year found that only 5% of 2011’s top 250 grossing movies were directed by women. (In case you’re wondering if that number is an anomaly, 7% of 2010’s top 250 had a female director.) There are plenty of reasons why that figure is alarming, but if you’re in need of a silver lining within that particularly gray cloud, it’s worth noting that we perhaps have more great female filmmakers right now than in any era of film history. Whether it’s a veteran like Chantal Akerman (whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was the only movie made by a women to hit the Top 50 of the recent Sight & Sound critics poll) or vital independent voices such as Kelly Reichardt, Lynn Shelton, Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener, there are plenty of superb movies directed by women. (And this isn’t even mentioning Jane Campion or Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” and whose “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the most anticipated films of December.)
Another woman who deserves to be in this conversation is Andrea Arnold. Like several other names on the above list, she flies under the radar a bit: Her first two films combined grossed just over $500,000. Hopefully, her third (and best) feature will help raise her profile. It’s her first adaptation, but it contains all the qualities that distinguish her as one of our most exciting new filmmakers, which is an odd thing to say about someone who’s 51.
Her new movie is “Wuthering Heights,” based on the Emily Brontë novel, and it opens in New York on Friday. (It’ll be moving across the rest of the country soon after.) This is Arnold’s first period feature, but she makes the tragic love story between Heathcliff and Cathy feel bracingly contemporary.
For those unfamiliar with the book, “Wuthering Heights” tells the story of a young, penniless boy named Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) who is adopted by a kindhearted farmer (Paul Hilton) who lives in the foreboding, isolated English countryside. (Fans of the novel will note that Arnold has chosen to make Heathcliff black, a nod to modern-day interpretations of the possible racial background of this brooding, mysterious character.) Heathcliff instantly takes a shine to Cathy (Shannon Beer), the farmer’s sweet daughter, and a bond develops between them — despite the irritation of Cathy’s bigoted brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).
Even if you skipped over Brontë’s classic in school, watching “Wuthering Heights” you can sense in your bones that a happy ending seems unlikely for Heathcliff and Cathy. But the precise way in which Arnold tells her story provides so much sadness and passion to the familiar text — according to IMDb, this is the 15th version of the book made for film or television — that its romantic anguish is as bruising as the rain that pounds down on the characters.
In a sense, Arnold’s directing career has led to remaking “Wuthering Heights.” Failed love and disconnected souls have long been a hallmark of her work. After ending a career as an actress and television personality, Arnold started making short films in the late ‘90s, winning the Oscar for Best Live Action Short for 2003’s “Wasp,” which was about a beleaguered single mother who tries to get back with an old boyfriend by trying to convince the man that her four kids aren’t hers. The gritty handheld camerawork, the luckless characters, the examination of class, the refusal to go for the easy resolution: “Wasp” can be seen as an introduction to everything Arnold would explore when she turned to features.
Her first feature, “Red Road,” about a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a surveillance camera operator, and her second, “Fish Tank,” about a teen (Katie Jarvis) who grows strangely close to her mother’s sexy boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), were unsparing portraits of life lived on the margins of society. Arnold could sometimes be faulted for indulging in a sort of “poverty porn” — letting her characters go down dark paths that feel contrived rather than organic — but her skill with emerging or first-time actors was remarkable, as was her ability to make you care for such unhappy people.
With “Wuthering Heights,” she takes her work to a new level, although she hasn’t veered dramatically from her usual milieu. Both actors who play Heathcliff — James Howson is the character as an adult — and Beer are making their screen debut, and there isn’t a false note in any of the performances. And while Arnold’s previous work has zeroed in on modern-day ills, she herself recognized the connective tissue between her previous films and Brontë’s novel. “Think about Heathcliff,” she said before filming began, “he’s an outsider, he’s a Gypsy boy. It’s a big class story. All my films have been about class, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ is more of the same.” Quite right, but never before has she made her underdog hero so monstrously empowered. Both Glave and Howson portray Heathcliff as a quiet, powerfully introspective soul whose burning desire for Cathy is immediate almost from the start. Denied his prize by fate and Hindley’s cruelty, Heathcliff may be Arnold’s most despondent protagonist, but she gives him a heroic resolve that’s new in her films. As a result, her “Wuthering Heights” is a tragedy that plays out with such fire that you’re never convinced that Heathcliff won’t end up with his beloved.
And then there’s the way Arnold has constructed her film’s strikingly atmospheric look. Working with her longtime cinematographer (Robbie Ryan), editor (Nicolas Chaudeurge) and production designer (Helen Scott), Arnold has envisioned the moors of Northern England as a perpetually damp, bleak enclave cut off from the rest of the world. The book’s gothic tone is captured on screen without music — all the better to hear the wind blow through the lonely trees — and framed in the old-fashioned, boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, which makes the characters feel even more trapped in their environment. (It also denies the viewer the widescreen pleasures of the beautiful locales. Arnold isn’t interested in making a travelogue.) As with her previous films, “Wuthering Heights” is a feast of intensely sensual and immediate encounters. “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” both featured powerfully carnal sex scenes, and although her new film doesn’t possess a similar moment, an exchange between Glave and Beer amidst the moors ripples with such awakening passion that it’s spellbinding. Few current filmmakers translate their characters’ desires into screen language as potently as Arnold does, and the longing in “Wuthering Heights” is so viscerally visual that it’s a small marvel.
Without any major stars, this “Wuthering Heights” won’t catapult Arnold into the realm of commercial blockbuster filmmakers, although with any luck it’ll be one of the year’s top 250 grossers. But although one wouldn’t want to dismiss the importance of box office to help make a director’s life easier when it comes to financing his or her next project, works like Arnold’s should remind us that grosses matter much less than artistry. Like many of Arnold’s female contemporaries, vision and talent are commodities she has in abundance. If audiences aren’t interested in noticing, it’s their loss, not hers.