An admirable attempt to strip the story of “Wuthering Heights” down to its barest, most primal elements, helmer Andrea Arnold’s first period feature and first adaptation of another writer’s work is unfortunately more interesting in theory than it is to watch. Working with mostly non-professional thesps whose inexperience drains away much of the material’s intrinsic passion, pic is dramatically flat and almost stylized in its austere excision of dialogue, non-source music and, strangest of all given the book’s romantic rep, overt love scenes. Helmer’s name and the title alone will guarantee distribution, but “Wuthering” won’t reach arthouse B.O. heights.
Emily Bronte’s only novel, published in 1847, has been frequently adapted for screens big and small, but few versions have improved on William Wyler’s 1939 pic, although helmers as diverse as Luis Bunuel, Jacques Rivette and Kiju Yoshida have all produced interesting results, filtering the story through their own individual sensibilities and cultures.
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Arnold, known for her portraits of working-class life and intense sexual situations, also attempts to make the material her own. Shedding great chunks of dialogue so that the story becomes a kind of visual poem, haiku-like in its spareness, and dialing down the production values to lay more emphasis on the windswept, soggy-soiled natural landscape of Yorkshire against which events unfold, this “Wuthering Heights” almost doesn’t feel like a period film at all, apart from the odd glimpse of 19th-century underwear and obvious lack of central heating.
Pic’s boldest stroke is to cast Heathcliff not as a gypsy boy, but as an Afro-Caribbean orphan (played by Solomon Glave as a young teen, and then James Howson as an adult) who was probably a slave, judging from the whip marks on his back. This makes the hostility he encounters much more overtly racist, and adds a contempo resonance given the interracial romance that develops between him and Catherine Earnshaw (first Shannon Beer, then Kaya Scodelario), whose father (Paul Hilton) adopts Heathcliff and brings him to live at the Earnshaws’ isolated moorland farm.
However, the casting also chips away at the realism, as it becomes more implausible that Heathcliff would have found a way to earn so much money when he comes back a wealthy man in the story’s second half. That said, there’s some justification in the way the original text continually refers to Heathcliff’s black eyes and hair, as well as his “black” moods and temperament.
In the end, however, the trickiness of the casting is the least of the pic’s problems. More challenging is its languorous repetitiveness, burdened as it is with too many (admittedly beautiful) sequences in the early going in which Heathcliff and Catherine frolic like lambs amid the heather, luxuriating in a quasi-incestuous but ultimately chaste intimacy. The most erotically charged moment between them comes when she licks the blood off his whipped back in a queasy-making sequence.
The creepy sado-masochistic atmosphere, underscored also when Heathcliff bites the lip of Cathy’s sister-in-law Isabella Linton (Nichola Burley, who gives the strongest performance), is right in Arnold’s wheelhouse. She also delivers on the cruelty that hangs over the proceedings like a thick cloud, a violence directed not just at people but also at animals; a sheep and rabbits are killed, and in two different scenes, dogs are hung up by their collars, alive but clearly distressed and struggling. This might cause problems in some territories including the pic’s native Blighty, despite the “no animals were harmed” disclaimer. Nature and mankind go at each other tooth and nail throughout, a sentiment of which Bronte would probably have approved.
She might have been more baffled, however, by Arnold’s decision to tell the story entirely through Heathcliff’s eyes, relieving the character of servant Nelly (Simone Jackson) of her narrator role. Meanwhile, the book’s other narrator, Lockwood, is cut altogether, as is the seldom-adapted second half of the story, which follows the fortunes of Heathcliff and Catherine’s own children.
Indeed, the inclusion of this latter part would have been completely unwieldy, given the torpid pace at which the pic’s 128 minutes unfolds. The dragginess is due to not only Nicolas Chaudeurge’s unvaried rhythms but also the monotony of some of the performances; young Glave and Beer as deliver every line in the same flat, affectless way, and although at first it’s interesting to see a version of the story with so much less screaming and crying, it sort of lacks a point after a while. The older thesps are better, especially Scodelario, who had a regular role in Brit drama “Skins” and appeared in a few other films (“Now Is Good,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Moon”).
Apart from a non-source song by indie darlings Mumford & Sons that plays over the last scene and end credits, the only music heard is a series of traditional songs sung by the cast, causing the amplified sounds of the constant wind and rain to stand out in sharper relief. Again, it’s an interesting directorial choice, but one that robs the film of emotional impact.