Following on from her acclaimed features Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009); Andrea Arnold moves away from her usual stomping ground of present-day council estates to the bleak, rain-lashed Yorkshire Moors, for her take on Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights.
Arnold’s story concentrates on the first half of Bronte’s novel; where Heathcliff, a young orphan boy of exotic stock, is brought to live with the Earnshaw family at Wuthering Heights. Hindley and Catherine, son and daughter of Mr Earnshaw, are unwelcoming at first; and while Hindley nurses a deep hatred of the boy, Catherine eventually warms to him and the two come to form a deep, lasting friendship.
Cathy and Heathcliff spend every available moment happily wandering the moors together, and are indulged by Cathy’s father. However when he dies, his son Hindley takes over the house and things worsen for Heathcliff as he is relegated to servant status and made to bed down with the farm animals. When Cathy goes to stay with the Linton family, after an attack by one of their dogs, she makes friends with Edgar Linton; a friendship which blossoms into a marriage proposal which forces Heathcliff to run away from Wuthering Heights in a jealous rage. When Heathcliff returns some years later, wealthy and well dressed, his passion for Cathy unabated; he sets out to take revenge on Hindley, Edgar and Cathy.
Arnold moves with ease from contemporary cityscapes to the period countryside of Bronte’s novel; and her decision to use young, inexperienced actors, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, to play the young Heathcliff and Cathy, gives the film a realism which couldn’t be further removed from the melodramatic romanticism of earlier screen versions. Arnold’s usual Cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoots close-up, in natural light, and there is no soundtrack, except for the natural sounds of wind, rain and wildlife.
The Director has obviously made some serious, stark choices in her presentation of the novel’s story. She has cast a young black actor as Heathcliff, prompting Hindley to call him a “nigger” at one point; and Heathcliff himself uses colourful modern language which I doubt peppered Bronte’s original. As for language, Arnold leaves Bronte’s period prose to one side; there is very little dialogue in the film overall and what there is tends to be terse, raw, brutal and far from poetic or florid.
Instead Arnold’s direction picks out the misery and brutality of the lives depicted. We see casual cruelty dispensed to people and animals alike; Hindley’s violent and cruel behaviour towards the young Heathcliff is mirrored by the older Heathcliff hanging a dog on a gate post and leaving it there. Heathcliff is also cruel and manipulative towards Edgar’s sister Isabella, whose infatuation he stokes in order to punish Cathy and infuriate Edgar.
While the film always looks beautiful, the inexperience of the younger actors shows and sometimes lets it down. Arnold has worked successfully with non-actors before (most notably Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank) but in this case, I just didn’t feel Cathy and Heathcliff’s pain. I was waiting to feel great rushes of emotion from their deep, overpowering love; but these just didn’t materialise. It was difficult to believe how Heathcliff could have nursed such an obsession towards Cathy all his adult life, when their earlier years depict them as being more like just good friends, not impassioned lovers – but perhaps this is better mapped out in the novel.
In any event, this is an interesting side-step for Andrea Arnold and, to her credit, she has kept her own vision very firmly up on the screen, despite dealing with period material for the first time. Very few directors would be as brave, or take the chances that she takes with this film; but I think I prefer her adapting her own writing for the screen, and look forward to seeing where she wanders to next.
Watch the trailer: