With its universal themes of love, betrayal, status and revenge, it’s no wonder that Emily Bronte’s venerable 19th century novel Wuthering Heights had been such a popular target for cinematic adaptations dating back almost a century.
The latest interpretation comes from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), whose bold and provocative film ranks as one of the best takes on the source material.
It strips away the glamour and offers more of a kitchen-sink approach, with uneven performances bolstered by powerfully bleak cinematography and an ambitious script that makes compelling changes while staying true to the spirit of Bronte’s original work.
The film takes place on the moors of Yorkshire, opening with teenage orphan Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) being taken in by a Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), a benevolent farmer who offers work and lodging for Heathcliff while he strikes up a secret romance with the farmer’s young daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer).
After Earnshaw’s death, however, Heathcliff is bullied and treated as an outcast by the rest of the family, prompting him to leave. When he returns years later, the adult Heathcliff (James Howson) has revenge on his mind, as well as rekindling the spark with Catherine (Kaya Scodelario).
Some viewers might find Arnold’s revisionist film difficult to digest, with its hand-held camerawork (used throughout) and bare-bones visuals, along with thick Yorkshire accents and the consistent reliance on close-ups.
The film is deliberately paced and atmospheric, yet the characters are cold and not conventionally sympathetic. And the script by Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (Girl with a Pearl Earring) is both intimately passionate and wildly melodramatic.
The quartet of lead actors is expressive if not always polished, with performances that require relatively little dialogue but convey muted emotions through body language and facial expression. By using black actors in the Heathcliff role, of course, Arnold adds a racial component to the socioeconomic class differences in the novel.
The chemistry between Howson and Scodelario is sharp, while newcomers Glave and Beer register strongly in the lengthier of the two segments that establishes the central relationship.
Wuthering Heights is certainly not a stuffy period piece, but rather a film with the audacity to try something different and challenge moviegoers in the process. Even if it risks polarizing audiences, it cannot be easily dismissed.
Not rated, 123 minutes.