If your knowledge of Emily Bronte’s most Gothic of Gothic novels consists mainly of Kate Bush running around a wood full of dry ice like a goggle-eyed loon whining about being cold, Andrea Arnold’s latest adaptation may be a little bit of a shock. It’s a grittier, grimier, earthier version of Wuthering Heights than we’re used to; Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier’s star-crossed lovers replaced by a pair of foul-mouthed wild children.
Mr Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) on a trip to Liverpool takes pity on a homeless boy (Solomon Glave) and takes him home to his bleak, windswept Yorkshire hill farm, Wuthering Heights, adopting the black former slave as his own and making a place for him in his family.
Christened Heathcliff, the boy soon forms an intense bond with Earnshaw’s wild, willful daughter Cathy (Shannon Beer) and earns the enmity of Earnshaw’s bullying son Hindley (Lee Shaw). Roaming the moors alone together, Heathcliff and Cathy’s friendship morphs into an all-consuming, obsessive love.
However, after Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff finds himself reduced to a status below that of a servant by the vindictive Hindley who brutalises him mercilessly, treating him worse than an animal. Learning Cathy has become betrothed to the foppish son of wealthy, neighbouring family the Lintons, Heathcliff disappears into the night.
Returning years later having made his fortune, Heathcliff (now played by James Howson) is still driven by his curdled love for Cathy (now played by Kaya Scodelario) now married to Edgar Linton (James Northcote). Resolving to get even with those who shunned him as a child, Heathcliff sets about ruining Hindley and seducing Linton’s younger sister. But tragedy awaits…
Opening with the adult Heathcliff ramming his own head against a wall in an attempt to batter himself senseless (a course of action I felt like emulating two thirds of the way through if only I’d had a wall), like most adaptations of Wuthering Heights, Arnold throws away the last half of the novel (all that convoluted stuff with the next generation), choosing to concentrate upon the doomed, unrequited passion between Heathcliff and Cathy. She also dispenses with the more melodramatic treatment of other adaptations in favour of a more naturalistic approach, tossing away most of the dialogue, adopting an aural and visual style reminiscent of Terrence Malick at his most willfully obtuse; her restless camera focusing on Yorkshire’s flora and fauna while the winds howl and you strain to here what little dialogue there is.
It’s a pity then that shorn of so much, the film still feels curiously lengthy despite a rushed denouement. Wind-blasted, dark, wet and bleak, Yorkshire looks about as welcoming as the Moon and feels like just as alien a landscape and Arnold’s boldest gambit – casting a black actor as the brooding, Byronic Heathcliff feels like a misstep, adding little to Bronte’s story and making his rejection by society feel a little too easy while some of the dialogue (Heathcliff telling the stuck-up Lintons to “Fuck off, you cunts”) feels disappointingly 21st century.
Glacially-paced and austere, with over half the film devoted to the two feral young lovers rampaging around the moors, the biggest problem with the film is its performances and its decision to swap actors just over halfway through. While Glave makes for a sympathetic if sullen young Heathcliff and Shannon Beer is fantastic as the young Cathy, an almost elemental force of nature with charisma to burn, Arnold is rather less well-served by their older counterparts. For starters neither of them even look remotely like the younger actors, Scodelario in particular, with her covergirl looks, is a completely different physical type from Beer, and Howson can’t quite overcome the fact that there’s more to Heathcliff than just being a sulky blank. Scodelario is a little better but underused as Cathy but at least makes a decent fist of a Yorkshire accent. You don’t have anything invested in the older actors so when the emotional screw is turned, you don’t really care and crucially the two actors lack chemistry, something that can’t be said for their younger counterparts.
Too restrained and lacking in passion to truly grip you, one scene hints at just how great a film this could have been and underlines what a wasted opportunity it is. After a brutal whipping Beer’s Cathy tends Glave’s Heathcliff’s wounds, tenderly licking blood from his back. It’s a scene suffused with such animal longing and raw eroticism it’s painful to watch.
Uninvolving, tedious but boasting one of the best performances of the year in Beer, Wuthering Heights is one melodrama that could have done with being a bit less mellow and having a bit more drama.
Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave, Oliver Milburn, Lee Shaw, Nichola Burley, Paul Hilton