It’s hard to watch Andrea Arnold’s version of Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights, about the destructive, all-consuming power of love without comparing it to Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which was released mere months earlier. This is, to an extent, superficial, since the two might not be compared if they hadn’t both been released within the same twelve month period. There have been plenty of adaptations of both works, why compare these two merely because they are the most recent?
However, scratching beneath the surface we see a clear conceptual link between them, since both set out to be radical reinventions of classic works. The difference is that whilst Fukunaga’s film, whose trailer boasts Gothic imagery largely missing from much of the film and a segment of Goblin’s score to Suspiria, suggests that it will be a totally new take on its story, but wound up being very similar to every other adaptation, Arnold’s film is the genuine article.
This Wuthering Heights film makes its intentions clear from its opening scene, which consists of Heathcliff (James Howson) bashing his head against the wall of the house that he and his lifelong love, Cathy (Kaya Scodelario), grew up in. It’s a violent, disorientating opening that ends suddenly when the title card silently appears on screen, almost daring the audience to recognise the scene as being related to the canon of great Western literature.
From there, Arnold makes a number of choices that toy with the accepted notions of what you can do with a literary adaptation or a period piece. The most obvious of these is the language, which is a touch fruitier than expected (it’s hard to think of another version of Wuthering Heights that contains the phrase, “f**k you, you c**ts”) but also extends to the handheld camerawork, which seems to be a reaction to a century of overly prim and proper period pieces. Arnold captures the bleak beauty of the Moors in a stark, unvarnished manner that gives the film an uncomfortable, oppressive atmosphere that wonderfully complements the overwhelming, inarticulate passion at the centre of the film.
The atmosphere of the film is so powerful that it’s almost possible to overlook the variable acting on display. As on her previous film, the superb Fish Tank, Arnold casts some non-professional actors in key roles (namely Howson, Solomon Glave as Young Heathcliff and Shannon Beer as Young Cathy) that, at times, bring rawness and intensity to their roles, but at others just feel awkward. It’s telling that much of the film is non-verbal, relying on the physicality of the actors and the sensual movement of the camera to convey meaning where the actors struggle to do so.
Wuthering Heights is a bold, audacious work that cuts to the violent beating height of a classic. In its style, tone and atmosphere it reinvents everything we thought we knew about literature and whilst some of its experimentation falls flat, far more of it works, and work wonders.
Wuthering Heightsfilm is out now in cinemas nationwide
words Edwin Davies