Emily Bronte's story gets a black Heathcliff
You call tell immediately that this Wuthering Heights is a film by Andrea Arnold, the writer-director of Red Road and Fish Tank. This might be the British filmmaker’s first period adaptation, but her trademarks are all there, from the handheld camerawork capturing dust in the sunshine and almost-square screen ratio to the use of natural light and the up-close-and-then-some relationship with a single character.
In this austere, elemental version of Emily Brontë’s novel, that character is Heathcliff, played first by Solomon Glave and later by James Howson. Arnold’s Heathcliff is not the gypsy of the novel. Here, he’s portrayed as black, and the reluctant members of his new family in a farmhouse on a wind-battered Yorkshire moor react as you might expect to their father’s act of charity in adopting him, considering the time and place.
Like most screen versions, Arnold’s film drops its curtain when Heathcliff’s almost-lover Cathy (Shannon Beer and then Kaya Scodelario), also his adopted sister, leaves the story, and so ignores the second half. But this spin on the book pays as much attention to weather and animals, plants and insects as it does to the tragedy of unfulfilled love as its core. Nature offers cameos from hawks, dogs, rabbits, sheep and beetles. For Arnold, landscape and wildlife are substitutes for needless dialogue and exposition.
The film’s interest in dirt and dust, blood and bogs, brings to mind the earthiness of Andrew Kötting’s Émile Zola adaptation, This Filthy Earth, although the intimate shots of nature recall Terrence Malick. There’s a touch of the Ken Loach of Days of Hope in its unfussy, non-decorous approach to period – although, unlike them, Arnold prefers little talk.
This silence and the intimate cosying-up to Heathcliff becomes a slight problem in the film’s later stages. Here, older Heathcliff and Cathy are not as interesting as their younger selves – and nor are the actors playing them. Howson looks lost and Scodelario is a thin presence. The film’s later chapters feel too much like standard melodrama with the sound off – and by this stage, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s exquisite imagery becomes a touch repetitive too.
But the best of the film – the first hour – is excellent. Arnold’s strongest work goes into exploring Heathcliff and Cathy’s tentative romance with tenderness and a visceral sense of where pain meets pleasure. Glave and Beer work well together. A scene of them fighting in the mud contains all the longing necessary to explain the distress of their later parting. Arnold is great at exploring Heathcliff’s isolation, showing us only what he sees as he lurks round corners or peers through doors.
The film’s lack of final tragedy is a difficulty. By the end, you feel as shut off from this world as Heathcliff, a stranger in his own story. It’s a smart approach – but not fully satisfying to share. Still, Arnold’s film looks astounding and there are clever choices in every scene.