Leading British arthouse film director Andrea Arnold (Red Road [review], Fish Tank [review]) has taken one of literature's most famous romances and scrubbed it of its poetic declarations and gloomy portents, revealing a tattered, brutal tale of cruelty and the privilege of class that has been lurking underneath all the heavy breathing and emo expressionism.
Arnold's interpretation of Wuthering Heights maintains the 19th-century timeframe and Southern England locale of Emily Brontë's novel, but her presentation of the Earnshaw estate is neither fancy nor pretty. There are no white curtains come alive in the wind, no pleasantries or politeness. It's muddy and dark and bare. The story is basically split into two halves. In the first half, the head of the Earnshaw clan (Paul Hilton) brings home a young ruffian (Solomon Glave) he found in the streets. Thinking he will do the boy a favor by raising him as his own, he dubs the child Heathcliff and forcibly baptizes him into his family and religion. This breeds resentment with his eldest son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), and awakens something else entirely in his daughter Catherine (Shannon Beer). The relationship between the two adolescents is one of sexual discovery, even if they aren't immediately clear on exactly what they are discovering.
Heathcliff's return to Yorkshire as a grown man is the start of Wuthering Heights' second half. Played now by James Howson, a first-time actor (like much of the young cast), Heathcliff comes back to find the farm in a state of disrepair under Hindley, and Cathy (Skins-star Kaya Scodelario) has married the son on a prosperous neighboring farm (James Northcote). Seeing his plans for revenge and redemption scarpered, Heathcliff chooses instead to hang around, slowly twisting the emotional knife in his tormentors while also trying to rekindle lost passions. Such things can, of course, only end in tragedy.
Andrea Arnold's take on the material exposes the Heathcliff/Cathy relationship as less a great love affair and more an obsession over a lingering compulsion. Cathy, played with eager naivete by Beer and haughty privilege by Scodelario, is drawn to Heathcliff because he is forbidden fruit. He is a bit of a bad boy, prone to verbal outbursts full of colorful, anachronistic street slang, but she also toys with him, both as a teen and as a woman. This makes Heathcliff grow increasingly bitter. Both Howson and Glave are a bit blank onscreen, their only apparent emotion being the slowly boiling anger and resentment that understandably make them want to lash out. Earnshaw adopted Heathcliff hoping to make him one of his own, and in that he succeeded. His natural children are petty and mean, no matter how many class pretensions they claim. Hindley is a hooligan, Cathy is practically an 1800s version of a chav.
This latest rendition of Wuthering Heights was shot by Robbie Ryan, who worked with Arnold on her previous movies; more recently, he's lensed both Ken Loach's The Angels' Share [review] and Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa [review]. Ryan brings a street-level verité to what is traditionally a fancier story. The camera follows the characters on loose feet. Jittery handheld and voyeuristic close-ups lend the film an immediacy costume dramas often lack, plucking Wuthering Heights out of the past and placing it in the now. Though Ryan and Arnold linger on different aspects of the natural surroundings, they never chase the magic hour or seek out the more conventional beauty of the countryside. They instead prefer nature in all its harshness--mud, waste, death.
The elements are a living presence in Wuthering Heights. The wind and the rain drive the narrative and its characters, reforming the people as much as the weather also alters the landscape. A sudden storm accompanies a conflagration of emotion, leaving a lingering feeling that the soil will never dry, nor will the extreme impulses of the battered lovers ever cool. This, of course, only adds to the tragedy of Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff and Cathy can never win, they are subject to the natural order, and its inevitable consequences, as much as anyone--or anything--else.