Wrap up warmly for this plunge into the wilds of old Yorkshire. Andrea Arnold’s new adaptation of Wuthering Heights is so bleak, wet, cold and gloomy it chills one to the bone. After about fifteen minutes I felt like calling for gloves and a muffler. Ten minutes later I could feel my feet sinking into the mud. Throughout the film I kept wishing I had a flashlight to see what was going on in the pitch-dark house, pitch-dark stable, or dead of night on the moors.
This film is so long on atmosphere it almost forgets about details such as plot, dialogue or characterisation. Actors grunt, swear and snarl at each other in dialect, but mostly settle for exchanging looks of hatred or longing. Every encounter is framed by shots of rolling, treeless hills; stormy skies; rustling grass and spiky bushes. We observe insects, birds and dogs with a level of intensity that puts David Attenborough to shame. The wind is constantly gusting into the FX mike, accompanied by the steady patter of rain.
Despite this preoccupation with landscape, the story is completely interiorised. Arnold has made extensive use of the hand-held camera, a tactic that leaves the viewer breathing down the neck of each character or staring into their eyeballs as they bulge with repressed emotion. The protagonists trudge through mud and grass while the camera bobs up and down in pursuit, until it arrives somewhere in the vicinity of an ear or an eyebrow.
We watch the entire film as if we had one eye glued to a keyhole. This is also the way Heathcliff sees life on the moors, as he constantly spies on the others. He peers through windows, he peeps around corners. At no stage are we left in any doubt as to his status as an outsider.
Even though it has been filmed many times Wuthering Heights presents a challenge for any director. Published in 1847, it was the only novel written by Emily Bronte, who would die one year later at the age of 30. The book received mixed revews, with many readers being shocked by the “amoral passion” portrayed so vividly by this isolated, virginal author.
In introducing the posthumously published edition, Emily’s sister Charlotte virtually apologised for this aspect of the book, and for the malevolence of Heathcliff. But it is the demonic side of Wuthering Heights that has ensured its immortality. There is nothing like it in the English language, or possibly any language.
The doomed love of Cathy and Heathcliff is a morbid obsession, suffused with bitterness and violence. No director has been able to emulate Emily Bronte’s ability to drill this story deep into the reader’s imagination. William Wyler’s 1939 version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon remains the best-known adaptation, although it reduces the story to a melodrama. There has also been an rather static production by French new wave director, Jacques Rivette, and a Mexican adaptation by Luis Bunuel, called Abismos de Pasion, which I’d love to see some time.
Andrea Arnold has followed Wyler, and most other directors, in elminating the part of the story that deals with the next generation, concentrating solely on the figures of Heathcliff and Cathy.
The big innovation in Arnold’s version is that the role of Heathcliff is given to a black actor, James Howson, with his younger alter-ego played by Solomon Glave. Both are newcomers in their first screen roles, and are not called upon to do much more than look moody and say a few lines in a stilted, taciturn manner.
The casting has the unfortunate effect of turning Heathcliff’s strangeness into a simple question of race. Hindley, for instance, constantly refers to him as a “nigger”. His pathetic hatred for the young Heathcliff is transformed into racism, when it needs to be a much more complex affair. On the other hand, the attraction between Heathcliff and Cathy now has an hint of social taboo and titillation. Yet it should be Heathcliff’s personality rather than his skin colour that stamps him as the perennial outsider.
The young Cathy is played by another newcomer, Shannon Beer; the elder by Kaya Scodelario, who has that half-starved but sexy look Keira Knightley has perfected. Scodelario is the only character who demonstrates a little acting ability.
Ultimately no human being can match the prominent role in this film played by the moors – those barren, wind-swept expanses that some find darkly romantic. As the camera pans for the umpteenth time over that blasted landscape, these shots become an irritating mannerism. Such an accusation could never have been levelled against Emily Bronte. Even those critics who found the book depraved were forced to recognise the power of her vision. When we put down Wuthering Heights we feel like Orpheus returning from the underworld, but leaving this movie is like surfacing from a Yorkshire coal mine.
Wuthering Heights, UK, rated MA,129 mins.