The grime and hate and desire and wind are all so tangible in this Wuthering Heights adaptation, from director Andrea Arnold, that most other classic-lit pictures feel like sanitized child’s play in comparison. Is this what Emily Bronte – who lived among the Yorkshire moors where the story is set – saw in her head when she wrote the 1847 novel? Who knows, but it sure feels like it.
In case you have trouble keeping your brooding Bronte men straight, as I do, this is the one in which an orphan boy named Heathcliff (remarkable newcomer Solomon Glave) is taken in by the father of a Yorkshire family. The father sees it as part of his Christian duty, but the son (Lee Shaw) despises his new stepbrother on first sight. Heathcliff finds a true ally in the daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer), and their youthful friendship begins to skirt around the edges of romance. The novel traces this tragic relationship, one doomed not only by family death and frequent abuse, but also by capriciousness on Catherine’s part and cruelty on Heathcliff’s.
Arnold, director of the acclaimed Fish Tank, ups the ante here by explicitly making Heathcliff black (we don’t know if he’s a former slave, but we see scars from lashes on his back). The first three quarters of the film are from Heathcliff’s wary, bewildered and determined point of view – all captured by the mesmerizing Glave with hardly a word of dialogue. Using an intense 4:3 aspect ratio, so that the screen takes the shape of a box, Arnold’s hand-held camera seeks out intimate images of Heathcliff furtively watching his family/captors through slightly ajar doors or cracks in the wall. It’s Catherine who brings him out of the shadows. The teens frequently escape to the moors, soothing open wounds from beatings or wrestling in the mud, indifferent to the social uproar they cause.
In these scenes and others, Wuthering Heights is almost unbearably sensual – and not only in a sexual way. Yes, the camera captures the way Catherine’s wild hair brushes Heathcliff’s face as he rides behind her on a horse, but this is also a movie that pays attention to the lissomness of fabric as it blows in the wind, the lightness of plucked goose feathers floating in the air, even the delicate carnality of a duck hanging in the kitchen, its dead eye letting loose a supple drip of blood. In Wuthering Heights, these things are sensuous too.
Contrasting all of this are the shudders of real violence that jostle us out of our reverie. Arnold and her co-screenwriter, Olivia Hetreed, seem to understand Wuthering Heights as a story driven by domestic abuse (they’re not wrong). Beatings are a regular part of Heathcliff’s boyhood, and he returns this pain on others: throwing food at the well-off neighbor boy who begins to court Catherine; tormenting the dogs who yap at him. Even that scene in the mud with Catherine is a bubbling brew of affection and pain.
This sense of torment – both physical and psychological – is heightened in the film’s last third. Having disappeared for a number of years, Heathcliff (now played by James Howson) returns to Yorkshire a successful man, determined to finally, officially, win the hand of Catherine (Kaya Scodelario). Things have changed for her too. As adult reality – and conversation – becomes more a part of the story, Wuthering Heights weakens a bit (Howson, also a newcomer, struggles with the sort of overt dialogue Glave didn’t have). Still, Wuthering Heights ultimately lingers as a rare literary adaptation that breathes with a soul of its own. It does more than bring the book alive; the movie immerses you in the elemental emotions of which the book was made.