Wuthering Heights is Andrea Arnold’s (and co-writer Olivia Hetreed’s) pseudo-radical re-imagining of Emily Brontë’s novel about passion and unrequited love. By transposing her trademark documentary style and mix of unprofessional and seasoned actors from Fish Tank to this adaptation, Arnold creates a version of the book that may divide fans of the book despite making perfect sense.
A poor young Heathcliff (played as a young boy by Solomon Glave, as a man by James Howson) is brought into the Earnshaw household by the charitable Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), where he soon falls for the young Catherine (played as a young girl by Shannon Beer, as a woman by Kaya Scodelario) and comes into bother with her brother Hindley (Lee Shaw). The romance between Heathcliff and Catherine grows despite the best efforts of everyone around them. However, the romance fails to blossom when Catherine begins to favour Mr. Linton (played as a young boy by Jonny Powell, as a man by Oliver Milburn). Heathcliff goes into exile, only to return years later a troubled and vengeful man.
Much has been made of Andrea Arnold’s treatment of this much respected source material, which refuses to overlook the elements of sadomasochism and necrophilia in the story. However, as the film plays out, it becomes increasingly clear that making the film course and violent was something of an obvious choice. It is, in fact, a wonder that no one has ever thought to do it before. The book was shocking when it came out, so why wouldn’t there be a shocking film version for today. And, far from being radical, Arnold’s aesthetics and harsher telling seem to fit the story better than the classical and soppy Laurence Olivier-starring 1939 version, a good though uninspiring entertainment.
Ultimately, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights success lies not for its treatment but in its beautifully lyrical imagery and in the performances of many of its actors. The film’s first half is slow and involving with a Malickian attention of nature and dialogue-free plot progression (the only hiccup here is an awkward line given to Amy Wren’s Frances Earnshaw). The surroundings becomes a character in themselves and the permanence of nature in contrast to that of the characters is brilliantly suggested by a branch that constantly taps a window despite, or in spite of, the passing of the years. Although by the second half of the film, Arnold’s aesthetics are easy to take for granted and Heathcliff, as embodied by James Howson, is less sympathetic, the film retains some moving repetitions and contrasts. The carefree and spontaneous nature of Heathcliff and Catherine’s walks along the moors is, in the film’s second half, stiflingly regimented and unfulfilling. These juxtapositions go some way in creating the sense of loss that should pervade this second half, though it is less successfully portrayed than the vitality of the first half.
Though it is a lot less shocking than it may think it is, Wuthering Heights as done by Andrea Arnold still displays a lot of the talent that was so evident in Fish Tank. Though it is a flawed film, it remains a moving film anchored by some great performances, especially from Glave and Beer, and some magnificent visuals.