Andrea Arnold’s new film Wuthering Heights breathes ferocious life into Emily Brontë’s novel of the intense, but doomed, love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff.
It captures the wonder and brutality of the Yorkshire Moors wilderness to brilliant effect.
Our attention is drawn to the wind and rain, the dogs and rabbits, the beetles, the trees, the peat bogs, the grass, the heather and the hawks.
Arnold clearly understands the essence of the novel, and the way the brutality of the landscape shapes the characters’ lives.
There are some incredible performances. Both the younger and older Cathys, played by Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario, are brilliant. The actors portraying Heathcliff—Solomon Glave and James Howson—present a figure whose inability to speak his mind makes for uncomfortable viewing.
We long for him to express himself as much as Cathy does. But he is silenced by the brutality that he has endured.
The “controversial” use of black actors to play Heathcliff works very well. It helps to underline Heathcliff’s “outsider” status in the novel.
Cathy and Heathcliff are shown as prisoners of their environment. They are like the two moths we see battering themselves against the window, trying to get out.
The moors are simultaneously a field of dreams and a dark, foreboding place.
Cathy is prepared to defend her love of the “outsider” with her fists—a human shield against her brutish, racist brother, Hindley.
She believes she will have a better life with the wealthy Edgar Linton—but discovers that his “veins are filled with ice”.
Later, as we see Cathy married to Edgar, the camera moves to a caged canary. It is a beautiful and poignant symbol of Cathy’s new life—so distant from the wild, joyful wrestle with Heathcliff in the mud, wind and rain when they were younger.
Arnold’s contrast of the harsh poverty of the manor of Wuthering Heights and the relative opulence of Edgar’s Thrushcross Grange is stark. The Earnshaws live in the mud. The Lintons try their best to avoid it.
There are several very moving scenes, like when Cathy sings to her dying father, and Heathcliff’s terrible loss when Cathy dies.
Wuthering Heights brings new ideas and encourages a re-engagement with Brontë’s text. It is also a beautiful piece of filmmaking.
The energy of the first hour perhaps isn’t sustained in the second half. But you could say that this reflects the change in Cathy’s life with Edgar.
Brontë wrote her novel at a time of great change in British society—after the Chartists’ general strike of 1842 and around the time that Frederick Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England.
There is a flavour of this in the film. The characters are people we can identify with rather than the period mannequins of many costume dramas. As such, Wuthering Heights has more in common with the social realism of Ken Loach.
So if it’s swashbuckling, bodice-ripping melodrama you want, go and watch something else!