Film review: Wuthering Heights (15)

BRONTË books have always appeared receptive to screen adaptation – often deceptively so.

For example, when Mia Wasikowska’s demure Jane Eyre fell for her gruff employer, only she was surprised to learn that he had a mad wife stashed in the attic.

For Wuthering Heights, hitting the right pitch of emotion and romance is even more problematic: each year the Laurence Olivier-Merle Oberon classic becomes more laughable, while Ralph Fiennes rarely mentions his assault on Heathcliff in 1992, in which his brooding gypsy boy runs out to the moors on hearing that his french-accented Cathy (Juliette Binoche) has married another. On and on he runs, only pausing for breath somewhere near Teeside. Whereupon the plumpish housekeeper appears and places a calm hand on his shoulder. “Come back inside, Heathcliff,” she urges. “And have your dinner.”

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Andrea Arnold deserves applause for a version of Wuthering Heights that attempts to translate the complex emotion, intelligence and social criticism, whilst adding some boldness of her own, recording it on hand-held camera.

The Yorkshire tourist board will be dismayed that it doesn’t seem to stop raining on the moors until Catherine Earnshaw turns 20, while the homes, clothes and characters look bleak and, despite the constant rain and wind, perpetually grimy.

As on her last film, Fish Tank, Arnold has combined professional actors like Nichola Burley with raw non-actors. And to stress the outsider nature of Heathcliff, Arnold has cast black actors Solomon Glave and James Howson as the young and old Heathcliff. Cathy (Shannon Beer and later the startlingly dissimilar Kaya Scodelario) is immediately, innocently fascinated and shows him around her favourite windbitten playgrounds. Hindley, her older brother, is less beguiled by an adopted sibling. “He’s not my brother, he’s a n*gger,” he bellows to his dad. That’s a shock for modern audiences, and not a line you’ll find in the novel – but also not a word which carried pejorative connotations until the 1900s.

Anyway, what Arnold is aiming for is a feral atmosphere of relentless brutalisation, and for the first half of the film she manages it, partly because Glave and Beer feel honest and authentic.

There’s claustrophobia to their closeness and Arnold is unflinching when it comes to depictions of the mental and physical cruelty inflicted on Heathcliff, which he then inflicts on others. The trouble is that, like Heathcliff, Arnold doesn’t know when to stop. Numerous innocent animals are slaughtered portentously, and if you are fond of doggies, bunnies, lambs and ponies, you will spend a lot of time watching between your fingers. If you merely object to watching metaphors being tormented, you are in for a tough time too.

Some of the acting is also a bit stiff, especially Howson’s, which crucially deflates the fierce passion between the older Heathcliff and Cathy.

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Arnold’s film is a rebuke to previous genteel period treatments, but in the end it doesn’t hit any heights.


Director: Andrea Arnold

Running time: 129 minutes


• On general release from Friday