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Wuthering Heights | reviews, news & interviews

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights

A modern take on a Brontë classic can't quite muster the passion of the original

The young Cathy (Shannon Beer) wanders the Yorkshire moors in Andrea Arnold's bleak adaptation

You can forget “I am Heathcliff”. And abandon hope of “I cannot live without my soul” and “I love my murderer” while you’re at it. Andrea Arnold’s newest addition to the canon of Wuthering Heights adaptations is the story flayed so raw you can see bone. Jettisoning such fripperies as dialogue, fixed cameras and even for the most part avoiding professional actors, she takes period drama by the wing-collared throat and throttles it with gonzo relish.

Brooding and brutality is in generous supply, but when we get down to the sharp end of this blighted romance Brontë’s passion seems oddly dulled, blunted by the relentless ferocity of the attack.

From Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon RSC-ing all over the politest Yorkshire moors imaginable, to the earnestly contemporary take of a 2003 MTV made-for-television adaptation (featuring Katherine Heigl, which rather says it all), cinema has run the gamut of approaches to Emily Brontë’s windswept classic. Director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) makes a strong case, however, for returning to the plundered literary treasure chest. Rather than abandoning the cruel, urban sensibility of her previous features, she sustains its bolshy gaze, making little or no allowance for the conventions of costume drama.

Language – the fist with which Brontë makes her case – hangs uselessly, like a withered limb

It’s a good fit. While an Arnold take on Jane Eyre or Villette would make no sense (though a re-think of Austen’s social satire on her terms might be rather bracing), in Wuthering Heights Arnold recognises a dramatic kinship, bringing to the fore a frenzy that is only barely contained in the novel. Her camera roams with hand-held stumblings, uncovering memories strewn like the fleshy remnants of battle across the moors. It lingers close and long on beetles and birds, the animal life whose strivings and labourings give little more pause to the wind than those of the Earnshaws give the Fates. No soundtrack here (Mumford & Sons’ intrusion into the very last frame is a serious misstep), just the physical force of the gale pushing its way into the ear. Rain, mud and excrement duly play their supporting roles, forcing themselves across the porous boundaries of the domestic interior, the heath rejecting the tumorous human growth of the Heights.

Brontë’s coy references to Heathcliff as a “gypsy” and a “Lascar” are translated, reasonably enough, by Arnold into a black hero, whose Liverpool origins carry with them the suggestion of slavery. “He’s not my brother, he’s a nigger,” rails Hindley (Lee Shaw), and the sense of Heathcliff as outsider emerges with contemporary clarity.

At its best in the realm of the physical – the young Cathy (Shannon) licks the bloody traces of a beating from Heathcliff’s back, the two break free from a baptism to run back and bathe in the sodden atheism of the heath – the novel’s early years enjoy vivid and unusually protracted treatment. Both Beer and the inscrutable Solomon Glave (as young Heathcliff) put their lack of experience to good use, amply filling the silences where dialogue should be. The real problems come later when James Howson (pictured above) and Skins’ Kaya Scodelario take their places.

“Fuck you all, you cunts,” (addressed to the assembled Linton family) is about as close to a complete sentence as the adult Heathcliff is permitted to get. All the charged glances and panting, gasping unspokens in the world can’t hope to compensate for what we don’t get here. Language – the fist with which Brontë makes her case – hangs uselessly, like a withered limb. Scodelario (pictured left) disappoints with a rather passive performance, generating little connection with Howson, and not even their mutual good looks can carry the film’s ending from True Romance into tragedy.

There are few current directors better placed than Arnold to make a go of Brontë's novel, to justify the retelling of the too-familiar tale. There’s innovation, certainly, but also – rather better concealed – an awful lot of authenticity here. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Arnold is to say that the film’s faults are almost all those of the novel itself. Her Wuthering Heights is a film of unwavering conviction. Excess, irrationality and the blunt pain of being human all assault the viewer on cue. With the film over two hours long however, concision is one skill she would have done well to learn from Brontë.

Watch the trailer to Wuthering Heights


There's innovation, certainly, but also an awful lot of authenticity here


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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