Like other adaptations of Emily Brontë’s classic, Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights focuses entirely on the first half of the novel, sweeping intricate layers of narration and the reconciliatory plot of the second generation aside to focus entirely on the doomed love of Heathcliff and Cathy. Yet the result is not a sensationalist flurry of “dark romance” to feed the appetites of Twilight and Vampire Diaries fans, hungry for their latest Brooding Hunk. Nor is it a comfortable Sunday night period drama; it hardly feels like a period drama at all.
Arnold’s reimagining is stripped down to its bare bones: the majority of the film is spent with the younger couple from Heathcliff’s point of view, whose scrambling excursions across Yorkshire moors see them teetering on the edge of innocent, playful curiosity, threatening at any moment to tumble into wicked sexuality or spitting brutality. The film’s only soundtrack is provided by elemental, natural noises: rushing winds, spattering raindrops, slapping mud – a blunt but welcome opposition to the predictably haunting score underlying most costume dramas. The 4:3 aspect and shaky, handheld camerawork pushes us further into the sensuality of the landscape, completely entrenched one moment in dewy grass, the next lost amongst Cathy’s tangled hair. This simultaneously lends an air of gritty, contemporary documentary to scenes of extreme violence, and there is little concrete sense of setting. The austere dialogue, too, is a radical departure from the eloquence of the novel. Arnold cuts Brontë’s most recognisable lines and inserts some thoroughly modern swearing, while Heathcliff is barely able to speak at all. But it is in these moments of obvious departure that Arnold most captures the spirit of the original work, its stark beauty and brutal savagery translated into something fresh and daring.
After the triumphant performances of Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, the turn of Kaya Scodelario as Catherine Linton and James Howson as Heathcliff the gentleman, fall flat. The scene of their reunion is bafflingly incongruous with the film’s earlier tone, as the reality of Yorkshire weather is replaced with a hazy summer afternoon, where the now elegant Catherine blandly acknowledges Heathcliff’s return. We are rarely offered glimpses of their earlier primeval behaviour, and in these late stages the lack of dialogue gives way to a inexplicable lack of passion. The film’s final moments thankfully return to the younger Heathcliff roughly pinning down a laughing Cathy, rubbing mud in her face. It is in these instances of fierce affection and blossoming sexuality that Arnold triumphs, arguably creating something more human and genuine than the often melodramatic novel.