Yes, there are mist-covered moors and tragic romantic entanglements. But in other fairly significant ways, this isn’t the Wuthering Heights you may think you know.
In part, that’s because co-writer/director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) returns to an element of Emily Brontė’s novel rarely addressed in its film adaptations: the description of the “dark skin” of Heathcliff (Solomon Glave), the homeless youth taken in by the Earnshaw family of the northern English countryside, who befriends the family’s young daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer). But family conflicts and Heathcliff’s relegation to the status of household servant complicate the possibility that their friendship could blossom into romance, and the adult Heathcliff (James Howson) and Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) eventually must face the consequences of their choices.
At times, it feels as though Arnold is fighting against the temptation to slather on the literary symbolism. Images of feathers and birds are strewn throughout the film—including a significantly placed caged bird—as are inserted images of crawling bugs and rotting fruit. While the location photography by Robbie Ryan of rolling hills and cloud-patched skies is often gorgeous, the cutaways from the characters to the thematic hints seem more like shooting pages from the CliffsNotes than the actual source.
That’s because Arnold works such minimalist magic with her visual storytelling, capturing the growing attraction between Heathcliff and Catherine almost entirely through silences and strangely intimate moments, like wrestling in mud or Catherine literally licking Heathcliff’s wounds from a flogging. There’s still a feverish gothic quality to some of the key plot moments—including Heathcliff’s queasy-making final farewell to Catherine—but Arnold realizes that this is a story that can be told with few words. By honing in on the early chapters and making this tragic romance one complicated by race, Wuthering Heights cuts to the heart of the matter.
James Howson, Kaya Scodelario, Solomon Glave