In Andrea Arnold’s arresting take on Emily Bronte’s gothic tale, Heathcliff and Catherine's idea of love has more to do with punishment and revenge than compassion.
From the second that it was announced Andrea Arnold was adapting Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, might have guessed that hers would be no ordinary costume drama. Arnold’s previous features, the bracing Red Road (2006) and unforgettable Fish Tank (2009), both mined a seam of bleak UK council estate angst via raw performances. The new film is similarly tough.
Arnold has not “modernized” the original text or packed it with appeals to the tween set, a la Alfonso Cuaron’s Great Expectations or Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead, she deploys her signature dramatic style, casting some unknown and scintillating actors, such that the film has a sandpaperish honesty that is true to Bronte’s messy source novel.
The element of Arnold’s film that has received the most press so far has been her casting of Heathcliff: newcomer James Howson is black. The choice hews closer to Bronte’s vision of the character than early adaptations that put Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes in the role. Granted, those decisions were not nearly as inappropriate as Olivier playing the title role in Othello, since Bronte is never quite clear as to Heathcliff’s race or ethnic background. He appears out of nowhere, as the orphan boy found by Mr. Earnshaw in Liverpool and brought back to the farm on the moors. The novel describes him thus:
Mr. Heathcliff… is a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman, that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure -- and rather morose. Possibly, some people might suspect him of a degree of under-bred pride…
Even in that depiction, Bronte is framing her hero in the most mysterious and exotic manner, a Caliban figure in whom any semblance of civilized behavior is shocking. He’s almost an incarnation of the wild, set free on the rough landscape of dog and moors to provide an unattainable ideal for the similarly independent Catherine.
What’s most bracing about Arnold’s approach (which, again, stays fairly true to the novel, except for including cruder racial epithets than Bronte allows) is how much she shifts the emphasis towards seeing Heathcliff’s brutalization by the Earnshaws from the moment he appears on the farm, as opposed to viewing him from a distance via the novel’s disapproving narrator. After years of beatings and being housed in the barn with the animals, Heathcliff runs off, leaving it no wonder that when he returns later to claim the hand of or maybe exact revenge upon Catherine (Kaya Scodelario). It's hard to tell which, as love and hate are never quite distinct for them. He’s sullen and vicious, with a log-sized chip on his shoulder, while she’s spoiled and fairly thoughtless.
Arnold’s film starts in the dark and quiet of a muddy farm. After an instructive opening scene in which the adult Heathcliff pummels himself bloody against a wall carved with the name "Catherine," the first hour is a tunnel of claustrophobic confusion. Taken mainly from the young Heathcliff’s (Solomon Glave) baffled, infuriated point of view, the film never delineates the relationships between the family and the help. His only relief comes from running out in the wild with the young Catherine (Shannon Beer), who’s bratty, but also the only one to treat him like a human being. Even this childishly romantic friendship twists cold when he pinions her on a rocky outcropping; the film goes quiet as we wait to see which way this will turn.
The film’s later sections lighten up the screen with scattered melodrama and brighter compositions. Still, cutaways to the blooming countryside repeatedly provide a somewhat ironic counterpoint to Heathcliff and Catherine’s toxic relationship. At times we seem to be watching a landscape film where the humans are merely other animals, trapped by their habits and appetites. Then, as the fraught couple reconnects and proceeds to make every bad decision possible, Howson and Scodelario's performances reach a doomy pitch that matches the film's growing sense of gothic horror.
Their long, youthful rambles in the wilderness provide the film’s only moments of peace, but Heathcliff and Catherine seem almost tainted by the memory, as though the fact that they were forced together but still separated (sister and adopted brother, white and black, princess and servant). Wuthering Heights shows that the masochistic urge that keeps them apart also binds them together. When Catherine sees the wounds on Heathcliff’s back from some mysterious master or parent, she doesn’t treat them or kiss them, she licks them, as though it’s her only sustenance in this overwhelming landscape that swallows people whole.