Wuthering Heights will be released in the US later this year. This review is based on a screening at the Independent Film Festival Boston 2012.
The new Wuthering Heights adaptation by writer-director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) won’t help any high school students looking for shortcuts. The film captures the breathless, wordless attraction between its wild-hearted protagonists, but discards the second half of Emily Brontë’s novel, as well as its intricate narrative framing device. The dialogue is spare, and the actors’ North English/Scottish accents are hard to make out at times. The script employs anachronisms like “What the fuck?” and “Fuck off, you cunts” (convincingly), introducing a modicum of jocundity to the film’s somber, meditative atmosphere. Plot addicts are likely to find the shots of soaring birds, dancing grass, restless dogs, wandering ants, and curling lambswool blankets, which interrupt every scene with humans, tedious and unnecessary. But that slow simmer of silent disquiet is Arnold’s aim, and patient viewers should enjoy the film’s measured pace and bleakly beautiful landscapes.
The feverish, violent love affair between Heathcliff and Cathy (played by marvelous first-timers Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer) begins when Cathy’s father (Paul Hilton) brings home the dark, orphaned, foreign boy to the crumbling Wuthering Heights estate out of Christian charity. Cathy spits on Heathcliff at first sight, but soon treats him as a brother. Her actual brother, Hindley (Lee Shaw), on the other hand, never lets Heathcliff forget his skin color, regularly calling him a “neeger” and beaten by his father for it. (This is the first Wuthering Heights adaptation with a black Heathcliff. Brontë imagined him as racially ambiguous but definitely nonwhite.) The spiritual kinship between Heathcliff and Cathy, as well as the violent and proto-sexual attraction that unites them, is clear to everyone but their father. In one scene, Cathy brutely embraces her adopted brother, then wraps her small fingers around his hair and yanks out a tuft of it. But Cathy accepts the proposal of their besotted neighbor, Edgar Linton, out of practicality and social ambition, and Heathcliff flees the Heights.
Some years later, Heathcliff (now played by James Howson) returns to his old home, wealthy, vengeful, and more in love with Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) than ever. She returns his affections, but is now married to Edgar (James O’Keefe-lookalike James Northcote) and pregnant with his child. When Heathcliff realizes that Cathy will never leave her husband, he begins to retaliate against everyone who had hurt him in the past. He marries Edgar’s sister Isabella (Nichola Burley) to make Cathy jealous, mistreats Isabella to anger Edgar, and lends a drunken, dissolute Hindley money until the latter’s forced to sell Wuthering Heights, his birthright, to his hated brother. Finally, he leaves Cathy once and for all in a bitter reununciation that kills her.
Arnold’s adaptation skillfully translates the lovers’ initial passion and later acridity to the screen, with much aid from stunning cinematographic work by Robbie Ryan. The actors and the moors are shot with white and brown so starkly that some scenes could almost pass as black-and-white, while others are generously ripened with fresh and dusty greens. As the grass shoots that periodically appear on screen reveal, however, the film is only concerned with the novel’s spring and summer; it disappointingly ignores the text’s pulpy, putrescent fall and winter, when Heathcliff phases out of the obsessive stalking of his youth and becomes a sadistic monster that psychologically and physically tortures innocents like his wife Isabella, their fragile son, Hindley’s son, and Cathy and Edgar’s daughter.
It’s worth considering how the adaptation process, in particular Heathcliff’s character, was affected by Arnold’s choice to cast black actors in the role. In the novel, Heathcliff’s resentments turn him, after Cathy’s death, into a black-hearted villain with no hope of redemption. Perhaps the film ends soon after that death because Arnold was (prudently) afraid to make her sole black character into a moral abomination. Her Heathcliff acts cruelly on occasion, but is ultimately a winsome, romantic figure. He’s not to be loathed like the novel’s character, but pitied for the racist treatment he receives, several of them Arnold’s creation. The men around him, with the exception of his adopted father, are openly prejudiced against him (though all the women are peculiarly immune to this prejudice). His adopted brother Hindley calls him vicious names at every turn, and his young back is covered in thick scars. Cathy’s marriage to Edgar, and thus her rejection of him as a potential mate, becomes not only one of class and breeding, but also of race. And he shares, with the young sons of many a servant and slave throughout history, that precipitous transition from the Little Master or Mistress’s brother to the help. Arnold handles Heathcliff’s black identity with racial sensitivity and paints a nuanced social portrait as a result thereof, but simultaneously flattens her male protagonist to just another brooding Byron.
In the end, Arnold has created an adaptation of Wuthering Heights as people tend to misremember it – a Sid and Nancy for the Downton Abbey set. The contrast between Heathcliff and Cathy’s passionate conflagration and the coarsely elegant landscape that surrounds them is a singular vision of love, hate, and obsession, by turns otherworldly and soapy. But too much of that vision is edged out by shots of cliffs, plains, horses, goats, rabbits, rain, and mud. The images are coldly beautiful, but the love story needs some more heat.