A poor boy of unknown origins is rescued from poverty and taken in by the Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. Theirs is a passionate tale of elemental love that creates a storm of vengeance.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Devotees of Emily Brontë’s classic novel probably will be hugely disappointed, if not offended, by Andrea Arnold’s bleak, soulless adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
At no stage does the film capture the novel’s eloquent portrayal of Heathcliff and Cathy as wild, rebellious spirits
Tossing out most of the novel’s rich prose and dialogue robs the film of its power and passion while the tactic of using untried actors as the young and adult Heathcliff and the teenage Catherine Earnshaw backfires badly. The kids can’t act and Heathcliff is given so little dialogue viewers can only guess as to what drives him, his thought processes and emotions, beyond the obvious: revenge.
For those who haven’t read the novel or seen any of the previous screen versions, the film fails in its own right as an unengaging melodrama. Most of the interminable 129 minutes consists of an unrelenting saga of misery, pain and suffering, interspersed with tediously repetitive close-ups of birds, insects, animals, cobwebs, nettles and mud.
Arnold showed great promise with her debut film Red Road (a tense thriller about a woman who stalks an ex-convict) and her second effort Fish Tank (chronicling a 15-year-old girl’s dalliance with her mother's boyfriend), but her judgment is astray here.
The narrative sees the orphan Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) being rescued from the streets by Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) who owns the manor Wuthering Heights in the chilly, windswept Yorkshire moors.
Glave, 14, and 23-year-old James Howson, who plays the older Heathcliff, are black so Arnold has substituted the novel’s preoccupation with class divisions with the race card. That’s not such a great stretch as Brontë described him as a dark skinned gypsy.
Heathcliff is treated as a member of the family, virtually a brother to Cathy (Shannon Beer) and Hindley (Lee Shaw). Heathcliff and the tomboyish Cathy grow close, typified by a scene in which they wrestle in the mud, with hints of a sexual undercurrent.
After Earnshaw dies, the loathsome Hindley takes charge, banishes Heathcliff to the barn and he’s beaten and reviled as a 'nigger". Cathy literally licks the wounds on his back after he’s been whipped, a scene which may be meant to convey tenderness but comes across as a strange fetish. Later, their relationship cools when Cathy complains, rightly that 'You never have anything to say".
Heathcliff departs after Cathy announces she intends to marry a rich but dull neighbour, Edgar Linton (James Northcote). Years later he returns and vows to Cathy (now played by Kaya Scodelario) that he will never leave her. Fate, of course, decrees otherwise.
Brontë purists may blanch at Heathcliff’s use of the f— and c— swear words, while pining for the novel’s powerful, often poetic dialogue, which is largely absent here. For instance, young Cathy’s revelation when she explains her decision to marry Edgar, a masterpiece of elegant writing, is condensed to a few sentences. It’s doubtful that Beer could convincingly deliver that speech and it would have sounded odd coming from a girl who looks no older than 13.
Beer, who was discovered when the casting agent visited her school, is a plain, lumpy lass who looks nothing like Scodelario, a luminous beauty and accomplished actress. Howson does resemble Glave so that transition is more plausible, whereas Shaw’s Hindley does not age at all. Glave often looks blank or opaque while Howson frets and broods before exploding in anger, both betraying their inexperience.
Heathcliff’s cruelty to animals and to Isabella Linton (Nichola Burley) no doubt is meant to be interpreted as his revenge for the cruelty he endures through his life but such acts often seem sadomasochistic. At no stage does the film capture the novel’s eloquent portrayal of Heathcliff and Cathy as wild, rebellious spirits, twin souls, who were often brutal to each other.
Robbie Ryan, Arnold’s regular cinematographer, shot the film in an old fashioned 1:33:1 format, which results in a 'boxy’ look that induces a claustrophobic closeness to the characters.
The soundtrack plays up the howling wind, driving rain and trudging through slush, a stormy environment that mirrors the stormy relationships, but the result may leave you unmoved.