‘Wuthering Heights’ is a wonderfully bold, almost elemental adaptation

Wuthering Heights
Written by Andrea Arnold and Olivia Hetreed
Directed by Andrea Arnold
UK, 2011

This review contains some narrative spoilers for this film and Emily Brontë’s novel.

By far the highlight of Andrea Arnold’s offbeat adaptation is the almost elemental and primeval depiction of the harsh Yorkshire moors, creating a palpable raw atmosphere and stark kind of beauty befitting of the film’s focus on the strange. This is both in regards to the dark, obsessive relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy, but also to the blurring gap between man and beast in Arnold’s world: casual brutality and prejudice-fueled scorn sees young Heathcliff treated like a farm animal by much of his new family, young Cathy licks the blood of his back wounds, and there are moments devoted to the children sparring and sniffing amongst the mud of the moors. The effect of the film’s first half, focused on the adolescent incarnations of the characters, is sensuous immersion, and it is anchored by terrific performances from newcomers Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, more often based around instinctive gestures than dialogue.

The relative rejection of speech transfers over to the second half, with the lovers reuniting as adults, but there’s a lot less chemistry between the older actors. There’s more a sense of sulking to express mutual desire in the actors’ physical displays in the second half, rather than a sense of suppressed longing. Kaya Scodelario is not bad, though jarringly unlike her younger counterpart on a physical level, but the greater focus on adult Heathcliff leads to some shortchanging of the Cathy character, and less of an investment in her fate; James Howson’s Heathcliff is an unfortunately underwhelming presence. This admittedly inferior second half still remains fairly engaging, if not on the same level as the terrific first, thanks to the retained exhilarating atmosphere of the moors and some actually arresting physical expressions, a few perverse, that could not have been found in the childhood segment: the likes of Heathcliff sinking his teeth into lips in a painful manner, the revenge-based beating of Cathy’s brother, and what is practically the fondling of Cathy’s corpse.

Though a very good film, and a wonderfully bold adaptation, it is a shame that the cuts to the childhood scenes within the second half only serve the desire for the whole film to retain the same kind of appeal throughout.

Josh Slater-Williams

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