Andrea Arnold’s film adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” emphasizes mud, misery and savage, inarticulate feelings in an attempt to restore raw passion to the classic novel.
Too often, great works of literature arrive on screen weighed down by their reputations, immobilized in a straitjacket of cultural prestige. Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is a wild emanation of Victorian genius half-tamed by time and term papers, and Andrea Arnold’s new film adaptation is an admirable, frustrating attempt to strip away the novel’s inherited “classic” status and restore its raw and earthy passion.
It abandons the lush and stately romanticism of most earlier filmed versions (like William Wyler’s 1939 swoon fest, with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as Cathy and Heathcliff). Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights,” is shot in a boxy format with a drab, harsh palette that suits the weather and the mood of emotional and material deprivation, the movie intersperses vertiginous Yorkshire vistas with almost microscopic examinations of the local flora and fauna. There are close-ups of moths, beetles, lichen and weeds, provided as background for a Darwinian study of lust and domination.
Rabbits are killed, puppies tormented and livestock roughly treated. Horses are granted at least a measure of dignity, perhaps more than the human residents of this elemental world.
We first encounter a mature Heathcliff, the screen’s first black Heathcliff (James Howson), doing violence to himself, beating his head against a wall in a fit of rage and despair, and we quickly perceive that his earlier life was no less brutal.
In this foreshortened telling of Bronte’s tale (the action in the film roughly corresponds to the first half of the book), young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) arrives at the Earnshaw home in the midst of a torrential nocturnal downpour, one of several storms that punctuate the narrative and amplify its tempestuous moods.
The love of his life, Cathy (Shannon Beer), welcomes him by spitting in his face, and he greets his new family with growls and curses. Earnshaw, the patriarch (Paul Hilton), is stern but compassionate, though his severe discipline is better than the vengeful sadism of his son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), who takes over the household after the old man dies.
Harsh natural and domestic circumstances provide fertile ground for the ardor that blossoms between Heathcliff and Cathy. They are more attuned than their kin or the neighbors to the rhythms of life and death.
Arnold, who wrote the screenplay with Olivia Hetreed, depicts their sometimes rough intimacy as a primordial state of hunger, deeper than language, reason or even sexual desire. She has a particular knack for bringing alive the inchoate, angry urges of adolescence and for turning the sullen faces and slack postures of young, untrained actors into frighteningly expressive instruments.
The novel, first published pseudonymously in 1847, takes place mostly at the end of the previous century. Arnold imagines the past not as a simpler, more innocent time but as an era blighted by older versions of the same cruelties – rooted in differences of sex, race and social position – that afflict our own.
Cathy, a stout, windswept lass, grows up into a willowy lady (played by Kaya Scodelario) with finer clothes and a house far grander and cleaner than the Earnshaw property that gives the film its name. (She also has a pathetic husband, Edgar, played in boyhood by Jonathan Powell and as a man by James Northcote.)
For his part, Heathcliff, having made a mysterious fortune, trades the rags of his wretched youth for a velvet coat and breeches. But the film, like the hearts of its protagonists, continues to dwell in a state of unruly, unbuttoned intensity.
Or at least it tries. The jump cuts, off-kilter angles and hurtling hand-held camerawork; the guttural stammerings of the actors; and the ambient muck of the production design are signs of what has become a familiar aesthetic agenda. These techniques are meant to create a sense of immediacy, a supremely powerful naturalism.
But in this case, curiously enough, the effect is the opposite. The grunts and howls seem every bit as mannered as the florid diction of Olivier and Oberon, perhaps even more so. Their artifice, like Bronte’s own, was overt, whereas Arnold strives to disguise hers in the trappings of authenticity. And as a result, the impact – the grandeur, the art – of “Wuthering Heights” is diminished.