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DIRECTOR: Andrea Arnold
CAST: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes
As refreshing as a dawn walk in winter on the Yorkshire moors, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights shows how 21st century cinema can – and should – go about boldly revitalising even the most familiar literary properties.
Emily Brontë’s oft-filmed, multi-generational 1847 tale of forbidden passions in rural northern England may deal with fictional events set 300 years in the past, but Arnold and her collaborators depict them with a vivid, urgent vibrancy that instantly and absorbingly erases the gap of centuries.
The film’s audacious unconventionality and a cast headed by four unknowns make it a tough commercial sell. But such is the enduring power of Wuthering Heights that there’s no reason why director and co-writer Arnold’s third feature shouldn’t prove an art house success in the mould of her Fish Tank (2009).
This story is presented mainly from the perspective of the book’s Byronic anti-hero, Heathcliff, played as a teenager by Solomon Glave and as a 20-something by James Howson. The action begins with Heathcliff’s arrival at the farmhouse somewhere in Yorkshire – the book specifies only that it’s 60 miles from Liverpool, where Heathcliff is rescued from the streets by Wuthering Heights’ owner, Mr Earnshaw (Paul Hilton).
Heathcliff is treated as a member of the family, effectively a brother to Cathy (Shannon Beer) and Hindley (Lee Shaw), but when Earnshaw dies and Hindley becomes the farm’s “Master”, he’s reduced to a despised servant.
But he continues to be close to Cathy. It’s strongly implied that their bond becomes a fleetingly sexual one until circumstances force them apart, with tragic and drastic consequences for all.
One of the themes of the story is the contrast between wildness and civilisation – Heathcliff and Cathy’s happiest times are spent exploring the muddily picturesque moors, and Heathcliff always retains his close bond with nature and the earth. This is powerfully conveyed by Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan through the close attention they pay to the flora and fauna of this remote corner of Yorkshire.
Frequent shots of birds, beetles and nettles call to mind the natural-world scrutinisations of Terrence Malick, and may strike some as unnecessarily repetitive. But they serve to immerse us in Wuthering Heights’ world of perpetual struggle, death and rebirth, providing an intense background for the stormy human relationships that propel the story forward.
Natural sounds of wind and rain are deployed in place of a musical score – and there’s certainly no shortage of weather here – “wuthering” is defined in the book as “atmospheric tumult”.
Performances are blunt and unmannered. Kaya Scodelario plays the adult Cathy with only the occasional linguistic anachronism jarring on the ear. These minor flubs are outweighed by the impact of the plausibly unadorned, sometimes vicious language used by what are essentially uneducated working-class farmers.
This includes several four-letter outbursts and a smattering of uses (by Hindley) of the N-word towards Heathcliff – Glave and Howson are both black, a pioneering bit of casting from Arnold. Heathcliff is described in the book as “dark”, “gipsy” and looking like a “Lascar” from southern Asia, but has always been played by Caucasians.
Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is her most successful and satisfying feature to date. Her only real misstep is the inclusion of a newly-commissioned, unmistakably modern-sounding song by popular British neo-folk band Mumford & Sons during the final moments and over the closing credits.
What Arnold doesn’t include is the second half of the book. As with almost all screen adaptations, the action ends shortly after Cathy’s death. Those who come to the Brontë after seeing the films are usually amazed to find Cathy expiring on page 193 of a 390-page text with a whole other generation of romantic entanglement and misadventure to come. But if this movie obtains the success it deserves, perhaps Arnold, Ryan and company might be persuaded to return for a sequel.
If you liked… The Deep Blue Sea, Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice… you will like this.