You have to admire Andrea Arnold for trying something different in her adaptation of Emily Bronte’s frequently-filmed 1847 novel about the doomed love of Heathcliff and Catherine. She tries to depict life in the muddy, windswept Yorkshire moors in all its primitive, grimy detail, including setting lots of scenes in torrents of rain. But she and co-writer Olivia Heltreed also give the tale a more modern spin by making Heathcliff black. And by employing amateurs rather than seasoned actors in some roles, Arnold obviously hoped to avoid artificiality—an effort accentuated by Robbie Ryan’s jerky, hand-held camerawork and a decision to shoot with natural light, even if the result is images that are often murky.
Unfortunately, though, the film turns out to be much more intriguing in theory than it turns out to be in reality. Visually drab despite the locales and emotionally parched despite the source, this isn’t so much the heights as the cinematic depths. Arnold’s decision to go with non-actors results in amateurish performances from Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer as the young Heathcliff and Catherine, who take up much of the running-time. Things improve in the later sequences, where James Howson proves a stalwart, if stiff, Heathcliff and Kaya Scodelario a credible Catherine. But even there, as in the first section, the supporting cast all too frequently lets things flag.
The acting, however, is only part of the problem. Arnold is so concerned with atmosphere that she’s forgotten about pacing and poetry. The film is punctuated by long, tedious shots of the Yorkshire countryside—encouraged, no doubt, by the inclination, once a decision was made to film in difficult locations, to use them to the fullest, without considering what effect the constant insertions would have on the picture’s momentum. And the bleached-out, chaotic cinematography certainly provides little in the way of visual attractiveness. In “Barry Lyndon” Kubrick shot sequences by candlelight that had radiance but were still clear and focused. Here, much of the picture—both exterior and interior scenes—are so dark and blurry that one can barely distinguish what’s happening in them. The habit of shooting through crevices and doorways that reveal only part of the action only makes matters worse.
Nor does this “Wuthering Heights” capture the verbal poetry of Bronte’s original. The dialogue is minimal, and very often presented in garbled, indistinct snatches as overheard by an onlooker (usually Heathcliff). And when the lines are clear, they’re often merely trite or affected or—worst of all—overly contemporary. (Heathcliff’s curses when he first encounters the Lintons seem more appropriate to twenty-first century South L.A. than nineteenth-century England, and while that might be the point—modernizing the piece, and all that—it’s jarring and unconvincing.)
The upshot of the aural and visual messiness is that it would be hard for anybody who hadn’t read the book to comprehend what’s happening on screen at all, which hardly seems the purpose of an adaptation. So even if one admires what Arnold is attempting, therefore, her film winds up being just the latest in a long line of deeply flawed adaptation of the novel.
It should be pointed out that in one major respect this “Wuthering Heights” is no truer to Bronte than most others have been: it covers only the first half of the book, ignoring the second, on Heathcliff’s later life and his and Cathy’s children, which in a very real sense is essential to understanding what Bronte was really getting at. The novel isn’t just a gloomy “Romeo and Juliet” tale, but that’s what Arnold’s film (like William Wyler’s 1939 classic, still the best of the lot) makes it. For the full story, you need to go to Peter Kosminsky’s 1992 picture or the 2009 British mini-series scripted by Peter Bowker. But both of those have flaws of their own.
The solution, obviously, is just to read the book. Certainly this dreary, unsightly version isn’t a viable alternative.