Andrea Arnold’s take on the classic Emily Brontë novel is an arresting adaptation of Wuthering Heights – at first a jarring, but nonetheless engaging, version that chooses to ignore clichés of the genre and source material. Although not always entirely successful, the emotional core of the tale remains thanks to some excellent acting from the two generations portraying Cathy (Shannon Beer & Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave & James Howson). Augmenting the fine acting with some stylistic choices that have ‘Andrea Arnold’ stamped all over them, this is an extremely distinct take on an oft-adapted source.
Even those who haven’t leafed through the pages of Brontë’s 1847 novel are likely to be aware of the famous tale of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff – through the warbling of Kate Bush’s song of the same title, if nothing else. The film follows the romance of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, an outsider brought into her family, and the fateful path it takes. Often the enchanting character of the landscape is romanticised and focuses on the rolling moors and dramatic visages of the English north. However, Andrea Arnold has very much concentrated on the human characters of the story, and to great effect, eschewing many of the clichés one might expect.
This is not to say that the locale doesn’t play a strong role – the moors invade every aspect of the frame. The elemental weather and earthy feel of the moors is strikingly realised through Arnold’s hand-held filming style and the washed-out cinematography. Evoking the style of her previous work, when applied to the moors Arnold delivers a setting that is simultaneously romantic and eerily horrific. Although the scenery could be sumptuous in good old widescreen, the use of the 4:3 aspect contributes to a more intimate feel appropriate to the central romance– the setting is a key element but Arnold’s film shows no undue deference to it.
The acting is strong across the board, even if Kaya Scodelario (as the mature Catherine Earnshaw) suffers as a result. Although she delivers a perfectly creditable performance – with James Howson deserving of some praise alongside as the older Heathcliff – the younger actors blow them out of the water. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer take on the bulk of the story, conveying the growing emotional bond between Cathy and Heathcliff to incredible effect. Although the older pair don’t disappoint as such, they do coast to a certain extent on the emotional groundwork laid by the youngsters, without whom the story’s heart-breaking conclusion wouldn’t be nearly as well realised.
A number of the choices made with regards to the story are presumably designed to deliver contemporary relevance. The casting of Heathcliff as black works well and pays off in the performances of the actors in the role. However, some the dialogue feels rather more forced and out of place. When Heathcliff tells a group of characters to ‘F*** off, you c**ts,’ it feels like it should be more at home in a gritty British TV series, and is rather more alienating than the other devices. Arnold’s attempts to juxtapose the rocky path of the relationship with metaphors for the brutality of nature also feel slightly clumsy. This device requires a lighter touch than simply rapidly cutting to flora and fauna. Fortunately these moments are fleeting, however, and the stylistic choices lend a refreshing angle – especially to those who have grown weary of period British costume dramas.
Not all elements work, but the original and different approach to this Brontë adaptation makes it well worth watching. The acting, direction and cinematography combine excellently to deliver a period drama that engages with Arnold’s social realist approach, and will stay with you long after watching.
Watch this if you liked: Fish Tank, Jane Eyre