Wuthering Heights – review

Andrea Arnold pummels this costume drama into a beautiful rough beast of a movie – even if Emily Brontë would struggle to recognise it

Full credit to director Andrea Arnold for taking such a bold and distinctive approach to Emily Brontë's account of sweeping passion on the Yorkshire moors. Her line in creative vandalism rips off the layers of fluffy chiffon that have adhered to the tale through the course of numerous stage and screen adaptations. It pushes the story all the way back to its original 1847 incarnation and then beyond, up-river, into primordial sludge. What comes back is a beautiful rough beast of a movie, a costume drama like no other. This might not be warm, or even approachable, but it is never less than bullishly impressive.

In Arnold's version, Heathcliff (played as a boy by Solomon Glave and in adulthood by James Howson) is a black runaway, plucked off the streets of Liverpool and raised on a north country hill farm. As youngsters, Heathcliff and Cathy (played first by Shannon Beer and then by Kaya Scoledario) exist in a kind of primitive Eden where they are neither quite siblings or lovers but some innocent hybrid of the two. It cannot last. Cathy is parcelled off to the local manor house where she reluctantly agrees to marry the foppish, insubstantial Edgar Linton (James Northcote). Heathcliff, meanwhile, is first abused and then later cast out by his brutish adoptive brother. He returns wealthy and hardened, hell-bent on revenge and still longing for Cathy.

Arnold shoots much of the action on hand-held camera, with sun-spots on the lens and the wind booming off the microphone. She tosses her protagonists out into the wilds, leaving them to wander at length among the rustling gorse while keeping the dialogue on a subsistence ration. "He's not my brother, he's a nigger," Hindley (Lee Shaw) barks at his father. Elsewhere, Heathcliff dismisses the lady of the manor as a "stupid whore" and says "fuck you all, you cunts" to the assembled guests. None of these lines, so far as I recall, can be found in Brontë's version.

But while purists may blanch at such liberties, Arnold's approach does Brontë no disservice, and even if the casting of a black actor as Heathcliff makes the tale more about race than class, the seething rage that drives him might just as easily have been sparked by one form of oppression as the other.

What I found more of a problem was the faint stiffness and self-consciousness of the acting and the crucial lack of chemistry between the adult Heathcliff and Cathy. We need to believe in this love in order for Arnold's gloriously bruised and brooding vision to properly hit home and I never did, quite. This duo don't like us; they won't hold our gaze. So all we can do is sit in the dark and admire their travails from afar, like peering through binoculars at some big cat at play on open ground; one that is too wild – too unwilling – to draw too close.


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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