It’s interesting to think that the new version of Wuthering Heights started out life as a Hollywood prestige picture starring Natalie Portman, and at another point in its development was meant to star Michael Fassbender – who went on to star in an adaptation of a novel by a different Brontë – and be directed by the same man who gave us Hannibal Rising. It’s interesting partly because the development of any film is fascinating, and seeing just that handful of names conjures up a variety of different possible films that might have – but now never will – exist, but also because the version that does exist is so far removed from the original conception.
Starting with a sequence in which the adult Heathcliff (James Howson) knocks himself unconscious by smacking his head against a wall, Andrea Arnold’s take on Emily Brontë’s classic sets itself apart as a brutal and violent response to every prim and proper adaptation of an avowed classic ever made. Arnold takes a story that has been told so very many times and depicts it in a thrillingly vital manner, using the same fluid, handheld camerawork that made her previous film, Fish Tank, so visually striking to place the audience in an uncomfortably intimate proximity to her characters, taking their emotions out of the pages of nineteenth century literature and making them disconcertingly real.
The story, for anyone unfamiliar, is that of Heathcliff (played by Solomon Glave as a young man), a young black man who is taken in by the Earnshaw family after he is found wandering on the Moors. Over the objections of the eldest son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), who beats and hurls racist abuse at him at every opportunity, Heathcliff is raised as part of the family and forms an intensely close bond with the youngest daughter, Cathy (Shannon Beer), a bond which is tested when prejudice and the rigid dictations of English society prevent them from being together. This sets in motion a story that unfolds over many years, as Heathcliff becomes consumed by an angry passion that spirals outwards, destroying everything that it touches.
Arnold keeps the period trappings expected of an adaptation of Wuthering Heights but jettisons most everything else. There’s no overly flowery dialogue – in fact there is relatively little dialogue, and what there is tends to be incredibly blunt and surprisingly prurient – and the film favours atmosphere and sensuality over a strong narrative. It is a film concerned less with high passions as it is the senses, with many of its most powerful emotional moments coming not from swooning romanticism but from quiet connection. One scene in particular, in which the young Cathy kisses the open sores on Heathcliff’s back after he has been whipped, is incredibly effective, if a little uncomfortable to watch, and it encapsulates the sensory focus of the film perfectly.
The film’s focus on sensory experiences highlights its main flaw; the cast. As on Fish Tank, Arnold sought out non-professional actors for some of the key roles, and whilst they can bring real intensity to the work, they also tend to flounder when required to handle the more overtly talkative moments in the film, or those that conform most strongly to the literary origins of the story. This is why the second half of the film, which focuses on the adult lives of the characters, is noticeably weaker than the first half; whilst in its opening hour Wuthering Heights can explore childhood as a series of sensual responses, often allowing scenes to play out without much dialogue where atmosphere and physicality will suffice, the second half has to deal with all of the Gothic romance material, at which point the film loses much of its energy and becomes like an only slightly edgier version of a familiar story, rather than the brazenly new take that it is initially.
However, up until that point, Wuthering Heights is a genuinely new and exhilarating interpretation of a story that has been told so often before. Andrea Arnold has created a version of the story that is vital and alive, that makes great use of its brooding locations and, at its best, takes the universal themes of Brontë’s work and depicts them in a way which is thrillingly modern.
Words by Edwin Davies