Movie of the week: Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff: two syllables conjuring desolate space and dizzying altitude. The two ideas are well represented in the new, brilliant, visceral, though flawed movie of Emily Brontë’s only novel.  Director Andrea Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan strip the story down to its bare essentials: pain, anger and love.

They do this so thoroughly that for the first few minutes I thought that this Wuthering Heights must be set 100 years after a nuclear strike. This version dispenses with the “flashback” overture, plunging more or less straight into the action, but (like the 1939 version) restricts itself to the “first generation” half of the book.

The real, unpretty toughness of the Yorkshire moor has perhaps never been represented more matter-of-factly, nor the hardscrabble existence of those who might have lived in that farmhouse in the 19th century. This world is elemental, almost primeval, and the gap between human and beast is narrowed. Heathcliff is reimagined, not as the vaguely exotic dark-skinned Gypsy, but as simply black — and confronted with overt and brutal racism from those of his new family who resent him.

Played as a youth by Solomon Glave, Heathcliff is a homeless foundling, discovered on the streets of Liverpool by the taciturn Mr Earnshaw (Paul Hilton). In the distinctly accusatory spirit of Christian charity, Mr Earnshaw brings Heathcliff back to live at the grimly remote Wuthering Heights, where he is to earn his keep through labour, but also to live as an equal with the two children: older boy Hindley (Lee Shaw) and younger girl Cathy (Shannon Beer).

Almost immediately, Heathcliff runs wild with Cathy on the moor all the livelong day, a passionate childhood romance, heedlessly erotic, innocent in a knowing way, protected and made more glorious by their supposed sibling relationship.

Later, Cathy accepts a marriage proposal from a rich neighbour and, deeply angered and hurt, Heathcliff runs away and returns years later as a man, intent on the reopening of wounds. Now he is played by James Howson, and Cathy by Kaya Scodelario.

Diamond in the rough

In the most extraordinary way, Arnold achieves a kind of pre-literary reality effect. Her film is not presented as another layer of interpretation, superimposed on a classic and all those other remembered versions, but an attempt to create something that might have existed before the book — something on which the book might have been based, a raw semiarticulate series of events, later polished and refined as a literary gemstone. That is an illusion, of course, but a convincing and thrilling one.

Cathy and Heathcliff are both outsiders: the woman dependent for her future on a marriage proposal, the man on a benefactor’s charity. It is as children that their love is happiest and most uncompromised — and, probably, most clearly doomed.

That said, the decision to use two separate actors to play Cathy and Heathcliff, in their younger and older guises, was for me a little uncomfortable: it is understandable, of course, but the younger leads are, in fact, not so very young, and their later selves are not so very much older, and the apparent transformation is an oddly artificial effect.

It is a minor consideration, given that there is so much in Arnold’s film that is exhilarating. The film gave me something I never expect to get from any classic literary adaptation: the shock of the new.

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Peter Bradshaw
Guest Author

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