|Image: Artificial Eye|
It was only a couple of months ago that we had Cary Fukanaga’s visually exquisite version of Charlotte Bront’s Jane Eyre on our screens. Now, Andrea Arnold, acclaimed director of Red Road and Fish Tank, gives us her take on Emily Brontë’s classic.
Heathcliff is a street urchin who’s taken in by Mr Earnshaw to work on his farm on the Yorkshire moors. He quickly forms a fierce bond with the Earnshaw’s daughter Cathy, but the harsh realities of life stand in the way of his happiness.
In a way it’s hard to believe that no one has taken this approach with Wuthering Heights before. A gritty, grim take on, let’s face it, pretty damn grim source material. Arnold may have done away with some of the more gothic elements of the novel (admittedly not all), but otherwise it’s surprisingly faithful for a film that’s been discussed as a complete re-imagining. Yes, Heathcliff is black, but it’s not a major story point, just yet another barrier between him and his goal. It also takes place entirely from his perspective. While he’s still pretty unknowable, Heathcliff grows into less of a scheming manipulator here and more of a raging force that can’t break free.
Arnold paints the moors as a gloriously vivid swamp teeming with insect and plant life and wreathed in mist. The moors are not only the place where Cathy and Heathcliff can go to be alone, they also seem to restore him, as Arnold frequently shows him lying in the mud staring at the sky. The contrast between the Earnshaw’s farmhouse and the Linton’s manor house is also played wonderfully, as is the brutally thin line between life and death. No sooner does someone cough or look a little peaked than we see them lowered into the ground. Animal lovers should also be cautioned: things don’t go well for furry creatures here.
Arnold has chosen to use a non-star cast. Probably the most familiar faces are Kaya Scodelario (TV’s Skins) as the older Cathy and Steve Evets (Looking for Eric) as the Earnshaw’s servant Joseph. It’s Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave who are truly outstanding as the young Cathy and Heathcliff, giving superbly passionate and naturalistic performances. Scodelario is excellent; manipulative but easily hurt, but James Howson’s performance as the older Heathcliff, with its impressive physicality, is sadly overshadowed by the knowledge that he has been dubbed.
Things do get a bit shaky with the transition from younger to older adults. Having made Heathcliff a more physical, muttering presence and less Machiavellian, the filmmakers don’t seem to know quite what to do with the final third. It’s still effective, but it doesn’t quite have the same raw emotional impact as the first two acts that preceded it. However, the central relationship is as brutally affecting as it ever was, and overall this is a vivid and undeniably emotional version of an often-told story.
Verdict: A very impressive take on the novel. It may wobble a little towards the end but it’s stunningly photographed, wonderfully performed by Beer and Glave, and it’s genuinely powerful.