Wuthering Heights is a grim, cruel novel, heralded for its daring technique and epic romance – love so suffocatingly intense that little could ever hope to compare. Healthcliff and Catherine's connection is the backbone to the darkness, but it has also been its downfall. Inspired by grandoise emotion, cinematic and episodic offerings have dulled the cruelty, smoothed the edges, and added a regal air to the proceedings, thrusting Emily Bronte's painful story into corsetted period garb that can't begin to adequately explore the source material. Andrea Arnold, on the other hand, removes the shine, revealing the novel's darkest aspects to tell a story of us versus them – unleashing the novel's pain, while also becoming too enamored with it.
Essentially, the film is split into two parts. First is Heathcliff's initial years at Wuthering Heights, as a gypsy outsider thrust into a painful, callous world where he falls in love with Catherine and suffers a multitude of beatings and embarrassments at the hands of his “adoptive” family and neighbors. Next is his return as a successful, vindictive young man eager to be with his beloved.
As a child, Heathcliff is quiet and solitary. Everyone looks at him with various forms of wariness and contempt, except for the young Catherine, a strange girl who immediately bonds with the boy and seems to understand his struggle in a strange world where language and customs collide. They enjoy a symbiotic and adolescently erotic relationship of love and cruelty – playing, fighting, tenderness, and pain. But as they mature, their relationship is challenged. Her father dies, her brother Hindley assumes command of Wuthering Heights and downgrades Heathcliff to barn-dwelling help, and she becomes intertwined with the more stately Lintons and the young Edgar. When Heathcliff overhears that she cannot be with him, he runs away.
Some years later, Heathcliff returns. Though he is the hardened result of his earlier years at Wuthering Heights, he now possesses a sense of regality coupled with a hefty purse of money. He wants to reunite with Catherine, and when that's not possible, he spends all of his efforts getting revenge on everyone who either crossed him or interfered with his plans.
It's hard to adequately gauge Wuthering Heights. On the one hand, it's a wonderful diversion from the usual period pieces. Where others were enamored with the romance, Arnold is enamored with the pain and reality. This isn't a piece where the families live in truly grand houses with typical period garb, gorgeously pristine landscapes, and manipulative scores. She rips out every bit of the novel's dark reality and pushes it to the screen.
Most directly, she ends the habit of casting white actors as Heathcliff and instead casts two black unknowns (first Solomon Glave, then James Howson). Though it might be argued that he wasn't distinctly African, the casting is much more in line with the novel's description of a dark-skinned, black-eyed, black-haired gypsy than previous Heathcliffs like Tom Hardy or Ralph Fiennes. Heathcliff is the other in every shape of the word – he looks, speaks, and acts differently. As much as he might have been brought in because of Christian kindness, his otherness isn't something he can avoid.
Arnold also makes the Wuthering Heights farm modest, like the homes Emily Bronte is said to have been inspired by. The floors are dirty, the walls are crumbling, and it's the perfect, dingy backdrop to complement the downfall of Hindley. The floors creak and the wind continually howls while handheld cameras linger in the shadows. Arnold thrusts us into this world as much as she can while we sit in comfortable seats in a darkened theater. We feel every bit of the dreariness that encompasses the landscape and the Earnshaw family, and we can almost feel, smell, and taste the cold rain and fog as they descend. Images pop in and out of focus, the depth of field continually changes as is these are our eyes as we're led further into the world. As an audience, we aren't allowed to rest in our removed, sugared-over environment. We see this dankness and cold, we watch the players kill and prepare their meals, live in dirty clothes, and wrestle their boots from the mud. We're not allowed to ignore the dark corners of an already dark novel; we must watch the cruelty inflicted on the dogs, and experience the domination and violence.
It's an excruciating experience while also an inspiring one that reminds us of the possibilities in classic literature, if we stopped idealizing it and allowed every wart and wrinkle to thrive. But Arnold also seems too dedicated to this unveiling of the darkness; she boils the novel down to a premise too small. It's understandable that she removed the Lockwood connection to make this a direct and visceral experience rather than a removed one, and the use of modern colloquial slang in moments of anger actually helps emphasize the world, but she's so solely focused on the immersive experience that the romance – the defining link to its fame – is tenuous at best.
It's wonderful to see actors who can feel natural on the screen and do not weigh it down with their recognizable fame, however, there is no chemistry between the Heathcliffs and Catherines (first Shannon Beer, then Kaya Scoledario). We can instantly relate to his anger and hatred (even if not to the lengths he takes them), but the love remains elusive. There's a large disconnect between his almost monosyllabic young self and his articulate and cold older man. While its great to give attention to the many darker aspects of Bronte's tome, it still must come back to the passion that leads all of these horrific things to happen, that makes everything make sense. Without it, it's just cruel people behaving badly. We feel the harshness and the physical pain, but nothing of the heart-wrenching emotion that leads Heathcliff to love Catherine, and ultimately fall down the path of revenge.
Arnold is a filmmaker highly skilled at capturing human weakness and pain on film, and in the case of Wuthering Heights, it's her greatest strength and greatest weakness. It's a worthy creation for the powerful possibilities in the world of immersive filmmaking, but it is also an uncomfortable lesson in necessity of balancing attentions between all aspects of a film.