Film Review: Wuthering Heights

British director Andrea Arnold&#8217;s <i>Wuthering Heights</i> is a version for our era, with a potent pastiche of naturalism, narcissism, a hint of incest, and a child victim&#8217;s&#8212;Heathcliff&#8217;s!&#8212;point of view.

Forget any heather gathering on the hills, or an ethereal “one true love” approach, in British director Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Some will call this sixth (including the revered William Wyler 1939 version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon) feature film adaptation gruesome and gross; others will long for the missing second half of the novel. But you can’t deny that this Wuthering Heights captures Bronte’s rural Yorkshire, the location shoot Arnold insisted on. Dirty and windswept, with puppy-hanging a trait passed on through generations, the film never stints in showing brutality in the natural and human world.

A muddy boot on the face quashes a soulmate/lover/brother, blood-soaked petticoats hide babies delivered out-of-doors, trapped and dying animals litter the landscape. But the film also features, and at last, an inclusion of some of the themes of this primeval but intellectually prescient novel: class warfare, a feminist subtext of women unable to own property, how destructive the mind-body connection can be when the self wars against itself.

Arnold (Fish Tank) comes up with a brilliant signature scene, true to both Bronte and the director’s vision. Young Catherine Earnshaw confesses she will marry Edgar Linton, in a tight and tearful shot before a smoldery hearth fire at the Heights. The light flickers, we cut to Heathcliff hiding nearby, listening. Stricken—and before hearing Cathy admitting to housekeeper Nelly she knows it’s wrong—he slinks away on all fours, beast-like, an emblem of the degradation Hindley Earnshaw has inflicted, working Heathcliff as a stable boy after his savior, the old master, has died.

The director used mostly untrained actors—one exception is the spirited Kaya Scodelario as the adult Cathy—to underscore the film’s fresh, primitive quality. This includes the child Cathy (Shannon Beer), the young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and the dignified James Howson as the adult Heathcliff; the last two actors are of African heritage. The novel does describe Heathcliff as dark, sallow, and with basilisk (serpent-like killer) eyes; he is often called a gypsy, a putdown in the 1800s. Nelly fantasizes the foundling may be the product of an Indian princess and a Chinese emperor. You might ask, as Arnold has in numerous interviews, why hasn’t Heathcliff been cast as a man of color before?

Soon enough we get used to the visually compelling, instant metaphor for being downtrodden, and it hardly matters. Less topical and sensationalistic is the director’s surprisingly faithful, even extended use of the novel’s window motif: being both shut in and out, showing Cathy’s need to get back home to the Heights, the yearning for nature, the soul escaping the body, and of course the set-piece when outsiders Cathy and Heathcliff first watch the civilized Lintons through a glass plane. Even the redoubtable adult Heathcliff gets stuck under a window as a waiting suitor.

Yet the film’s most breathtakingly original contribution shows characters looking through peepholes as they probably existed in 19th-century farmhouses and estates, and members of the underclass watching their “betters” from afar. The child Heathcliff peers nonplussed at a sexual coupling in the muck; from the same spot he later watches the result of that mating: Hareton’s birth. The pale eye of the formerly saccharine Isabella (the effective Nichola Burley) glints spitefully through a wall crack, spying on Heathcliff’s torment at Cathy’s death. Whether the director or DP Robby Ryan came up with this “peeking" motif is hard to say; Ryan did win an award at the Venice Film Festival.

A few unfortunate bits break the film’s one-note intensity. Cathy and Heathcliff’s initials on the Heights’ wall look kindergarten-ish, not nostalgic. A curse spat out at the landed gentry by the child Heathcliff is both anachronistic and awkward. Nevertheless, our view of Wuthering Heights is now permanently changed, as Cathy says, like wine coloring water.