WUTHERING HEIGHTS directed by Andrea Arnold (UK, 2011)
The cover blurb on my World Classics edition of Wuthering Heights quotes from Charlotte Brontë’s preface to the second edition of her sister’s extraordinary novel. CB wrote that the story was “hewn from a wild workshop with simple tools, not of homely materials”.
The same could be said of this movie – there are certainly no homely country comforts and it is as far from the standard costume dramas as you can get.
The Yorkshire Moors have never looked as bleak or forbidding, rather than prancing through the heather the young Heathcliff (Solomon Grave) and Cathy (Shannon Beer) bond while rolling in mud.
The cinematography of Robbie Ryan is exceptional – filmed in natural light, with no soundtrack, the harsh almost primeval beauty of the natural world is beautifully captured. The natural world is deliberately de-sentimentalised as a reflection of the harsh lives of the farming communities. We see Heathcliff carry an ailing sheep home only to see him slit the animal’s throat.
As the childhood sweethearts come of age they are separated and the story resumes 12 years later where the couple are then played by James Howson and Kaya Scodelario. The switch to different actors initially comes as a shock, especially as Cathy has miraculously transformed from a frumpy tom boy to a slim and sophisticated beauty. Howson is excellent , however, and entirely convincing as a brooding young man bent on savage revenge.
Casting black actors in the role of Heathcliff is a brave choice but makes perfect sense since it makes the fierceness of the character’s rejection more credible. He is frequently verbally and physically abused and forced to sleep with the livestock. Even his baptism is made to look like an act of cruelty.
The movie is told largely from his perspective and we follow him as he is reduced to skulking around in the shadows like a predatory animal. Even Cathy isn’t always very gentle with him – “I ain’t treated you badly” she says after belting him across the face. He loves her all the same : “My life has been bitter since I last heard your voice”, he says theatrically although he has somehow managed to make a vast and mysterious fortune.
Andrea Arnold’s bold and original adaptation takes some liberties with the novel but her changes are always in tune with the strangeness and complexity of Emily Brontë’s tale of madness, prejudice, cruelty, obsessive love and bitter revenge.