The atmospherics in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights are such that you may walk out of the film expecting your hair to be damp and windblown and perhaps find a dead rabbit in your satchel. For its two-hour plus duration, it’s like going on Outward Bound: There are moody teenagers learning bird species on the moors. There is the sense of virtuousness that comes with deprivation, although in this case, it’s not going without walls and flush toilets but enduring a film without engaging dialogue and strong performances. And yet the movie, as flawed and wild as Heathcliff himself, gets under your skin.
That’s why, while it is tempting to mock this often patience-trying Wuthering Heights from here to kingdom come, I can’t do so in good conscience. Or at least not without mercy, because there are elements of Arnold’s film that aggravate in a good way. Like most film adaptations of Emily Brontë’s lone novel, first published in 1847, it focuses on the romantic aspect of the story, the abandoned child Heathcliff, who falls in love with the daughter of the man who rescues him. Cathy loves him too but marries Edgar Linton, the rich boy next door, and Heathcliff goes off to make his own fortune and plan his revenge. Arnold has all but abandoned the second half of the book, in which Cathy is dead, the passions are far less pretty and the focus on vengeance plays out in the next generation. At the painstakingly slow storytelling pace Arnold established for herself, doing so might have made for a six-hour movie.
(SEE: Where Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights landed on the all-TIME list of most romantic novels.
A primal sexuality permeates the movie: shots of horse’s rumps, young Cathy and Heathcliff rolling in the dirt together, feathers touched to skin—all set only to ambient sounds and shot in what looks like natural light. I haven’t seen a movie that paid this much loving attention to the flora and fauna since 2009’s I Am Love. Much will be made of all the animals that are slaughtered on screen, including various bunnies, a goose and a lamb. Apparently it’s all faked, so this is not technically a bunny snuff film, but it certainly feels like one. The act bothered me less than the repetition; by the time we got to the goose, the point about how fragile and easily extinguished a life is had been amply made.
Arnold’s boldest move is to use two young black actors to play Heathcliff, and she should be lauded for taking such an exciting approach. Solomon Glave plays Heathcliff at 12 or so, the one Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) brings home with him after he finds him on the streets of Liverpool. James Howson takes over the role in the movie’s second half, when he’s fully grown. Is this a stretch? The Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s book was a gypsy, a vagabond, an ill-mannered street child, regularly described as “dark” but in at least one passage as not “a regular black.” That suggests some leeway, that Heathcliff could have been of mixed race, part Gypsy, part black, part anything but white, a perspective that’s not new to literary scholarship even if the most notable cinematic Heathcliffs have been lily white types like Sir Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes.
In Brontë’s pages, the good-hearted servant Nelly tells Heathcliff, “Who knows, but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?” Arnold and her co-writer Olivia Hetreed play with those words and put them in the mouth instead of flirtatious younger Cathy (the freckled, rounded Shannon Beer). “I bet your mother was an African Queen and your father a Chinese emperor,” she tells him, eliciting the fraction of a smile from this justifiably gloomy kid, who is regularly abused by Cathy’s brother Hindley (Lee Shaw). What’s unarguable is that Brontë posited Heathcliff as an “other,” a man tormented by his outsider status. Trying to create a sense of that otherness in the 21st century, is it reasonable for Arnold to use a black actor? Absolutely.
But it would also be reasonable to find an actor who can act. Arnold famously plucked Katie Jarvis, the star of her gritty 2009 film Fish Tank, off a railroad platform, but you couldn’t tell from watching her that she was a complete novice. Howson is a total contrast, so wooden he’s only effective when he’s not talking. Neither he nor Kaya Scodelario, who came to the part of the older Cathy with British television experience and a small role in Clash of the Titans, attempt any kind of period speech, and the sparse dialogue Arnold and Hetreed have written for them doesn’t help. “I’ll just go get my stuff,” Cathy says. There are moments when they seem like a pair of very contemporary young adults (although if they were texting each other, there would be no LOLs or hahas). He’s beautiful, she’s beautiful, but their chemistry isn’t as powerful as it should be. Arnold’s aim for a naturalism on the moors and in dank houses is noble and likely, rendered far closer to Brontë’s original vision than most filmed Wuthering Heights, particularly the classic 1939 Olivier-Merle Oberon version, with its soundstagey moors. There’s nothing genteel or Masterpiece Theater about her viewpoint. But it’s also pushy; Arnold’s Wuthering Heights doesn’t just immerse you, it holds you under. Her over-done naturalism, with those endless shots of grass growing and moth wings flapping, becomes its own form of artifice.