Unrequited love, Kate Bush wailing manically over the wind and another chance for the Yorkshire Tourist Board to show off their moors on our screens. Having sported somewhat of a theme of violence begetting violence and the nature of cruelty in the last few months with In a Better World, Tyrannosaur, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Andrea Arnold continues this trend at the Phoenix as she sets her teeth into Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, following up her acclaimed 2009 Fish Tank. This film’s been far more under the radar than we’re used to with these sorts of features. Originally it was meant to star Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, which would have been nice, however would not have shown us anything we hadn’t seen before. After casting and recasting, we were finally presented with the unknown James Howson as the adult Heathcliff and the rising Kaya Scodelario as the adult Catherine. Which leaves us unsure of what to expect, quite fitting as this new adaptation of Wuthering Heights is all about hitting us with a new interpretation of the classic.
Mr. Earnshaw owns the farmhouse and surrounding land known as Wuthering Heights situated on the wild and wet Yorkshire Moors. On a trip to Liverpool he finds a street urchin and out of Christian kindness adopts him and brings him home, baptising him Heathcliff. Whilst Mr Earnshaw’s heir, Hindley takes a firm dislike to the vagabond child, his daughter, Cathy forms a strong and obsessive relationship with him, the two running wild over the moors with the result of plenty of muddy skirt and trouser hems (which Arnold does very well in this version, the young Heathcliff (Soloman Glave) and Catherine (Shannon Beer) being displayed as practically feral and constantly covered in mud.) With the death of Mr. Earnshaw and Hindley’s inheritance of the house, the new master of Wuthering Heights sees to it that Heathcliff is reduced to the level of a servant, made to sleep with the dogs and receives beatings from the fearsome family servant, Joseph. As the pair grow up, they also begin to grow apart, or at least Cathy does when she meets the well to do Edger Linton. For fear of divulging further spoilers to those somehow unacquainted with the story, I’ll stop there.
The film concludes at the pivotal event exactly halfway through the book (those familiar with the story will know which event I’m on about) and doesn’t go on to show Heathcliff’s later years of deception and manipulation against those who he feels have wronged him. The major problem with adapting a book to film, as everyone is fully aware is having the sheer time to fit everything in. Film creators must be content to skim along the meat of the main storyline, cutting off trimmings from the sides as they go in order to carve the tale they wish to relate into a bite size, 2 hour mouthful. This is generally why television adaptations are preferable. However, we really shouldn’t be surprised by this revelation, as the only film version to ever tell Bronte’s whole plot was Peter Kosminsky’s 1992 edition. It is nevertheless disappointing. Personally, the aging Heathcliff’s cruel revenge upon those around him and the next generation is the most fascinating part of the novel, the study of an obsession gone awry. Having seen Arnold’s dark, brutal handling of the first half of the book, it would have been very interesting to see her interpretation of the twisted second half. But perhaps that’s the sadist in me talking. As it is, we are left simply with the traditional, doomed love story of the two growing children, a deep narrative, but perhaps not as powerful as it could have been.
My petty hang ups with the script aside, Arnold hits us impressively with a new way of looking at a 164 year old English literature fundamental. She brings elements of her Red Road and Fish Tank council estates to the moors with all the profanity and violence that implies. Heathcliff, in this films biggest renovation, is black. This makes perfect sense of a feature created for modern times. With the issue uncomfortably closer to our era, it’s easier to understand the Victorian character’s aversion and immediate dislike towards him, than against a gypsy of unclear birth. The N word is tossed savagely around. Each of the players is given their different, rougher slants but the most impressive to me was that of Hindley. A character often thought of as pompous and spoiled, relying on the frightening, strongly Christian servant, Joseph to exact punishment on the gypsy he saw as his inferior. Here, Hindley is stronger and an awful lot scarier. Physically imposing with a shaven head, he regularly and savagely beats Heathcliff with his own fists and feet with a stream of racist obscenities streaming from his lips. You can practically smell the Odeur De EDL exuding from him.
The setting also deserves a mention. In fitting with the coarse aesthetic, the moors as well receive the Andrea Arnold treatment. More grey, damp, untamed, bleak and “any other adjectives you can think of concerning moors” than ever, although perhaps receive a bit more focus than is needed and interest in them can waver. The farmhouse of the title is simple, small and humble as opposed to some of the mansions we have seen in previous incarnations. The cinematography accompanied by the lack of music (instead they have decided that the whistling wind and scrunch of long grass is sufficient) is well done. Hand cams accompany the children’s many sprints over desolate hills. Also shots inside the farmhouse and at nighttimes are dark, if not pitch black, communicating the reality of the space.
It’s a well struck and thoroughly new approach to the novel and worth seeing on this quality alone. Though the second half loses its momentum somewhat, the majority of the film is impressive, having been yanked off its pedestal, beaten up and rolled around in the mud. Yes it’s dirty, yes it’s savage, yes it’s profane and yes it’s Bronte in its rawest, most bestial form.
Graham Muir is a Box Office and Front of House Assistant at Phoenix Square. When not compiling the Film Notes or editing the Staff Film Reviews, he lovingly nurtures a caffeine fuelled video gaming addiction.