Period dramas are often a fair bit darker on the page than they have turned out on the screen, where many of the less audience-friendly concepts get glossed over by a dense layer of corset envy and Colin Firth going for an inadvisable swim in a nearby pond, fully clothed but entirely out of character. Director Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights aims to bring some grit to a genre that has largely turned into a fashion show, bringing in handheld cameras, myriad racial politics and Effy from Skins.
Apart from ditching the bookends where Mr. Lockwood discovers the history of the Heights from a chatty housekeeper, that the adaptation stays relatively faithful to the text while adding a contemporary edge speaks well for Arnold’s nuance in picking out the most timeless elements of Emily Brontë’s novel. The film is still set in the 19th Century, but with its historical dressings so subdued as to feel more as though it takes place in a tiny little universe of its own. It may not be a perfect film by any stretch, but it does feel like a fresh take on well-worn material, which is a rare and commendable thing.
It will come as no surprise to any viewers that director Arnold’s history is in minimalist kitchen sink dramas, with her debut Red Road being set on a council estate and shot according to the Danish rules of Dogma filmmaking, as devised by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars ‘chaos reigns’ Von Trier. Here, the urban sprawl is replaced by the wide open wind-ravaged countryside occupying the space between the farm where Heathcliff works and the manor where his beloved Catherine is eventually sent to learn the ways of a polite laydee. Dainty soundtracks are abandoned in favour of howling gales – only one piece of music is used and it’s a mood-breaker at a crucial moment. Youthful disaffection expresses itself on long walks through the nettles and thistles, rather than hanging out in gangs on street corners. In taking Brontë’s description of Heathcliff as dark-skinned to mean black, rather than the original gypsy, the film replaces the novel’s concerns about class with more modern questions of race.
There’s also the language, replete with effing, blinding, and the occasional See You Next Tuesday for good measure. Thanks to Arnold so effortlessly marrying the 19th century setting with more modern day presentation – take notes, Ralph Fiennes – it is a smoother fit than might be expected. One of the problems with many period dramas is that even the poor are presented with a certain nobility, as though they’re much the same as their upper caste companions, only in less colourful outfits. Arnold uses harsher language to emphasize how much more dangerous and aggressive life is on the farm compared to the manor. When resources are tight, it’s be or be killed, and anyone taking what is yours – work, food, a father’s affection – instantly becomes an enemy in the struggle to stay alive. For whatever shock value swearing can have any more, it is justified as character detail in this case. Hindley’s hatred and racial abuse of Heathcliff is more rooted in his being forced to give up room in the family home to a stranger than it is to the fact that Heathcliff is specifically black.
The cast are good, but occasionally struggle to keep up with the naturalism of the rest of the presentation. Kaya Scodelario, as the older Cathy, is a little too actorly in her manner to convey the depth of her feelings and anger towards Heathcliff. It is a decent performance, but noticeably a performance. When she stamps on Heathcliff’s face, in a fit of frustration at her inability to control him, it’s too staged to have the desired impact. Her slightly exotic looks also don’t quite fit with the rural, more bullish beauty of Shannon Beer as the young Cathy. James Howson as older Heathcliff conveys the character’s intensity, but sometimes the longing stares look a little blank-eyed. It’s a remarkable effort for someone who had never acted before, but almost the opposite problem to Scodelario – she’s too trained, he can’t quite get the nuance to complement his instincts. The younger actors (Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave) have more chemistry than their adult counterparts and thus end up offering more balanced performances.
Because of the grown-up actors’ difficulty in conveying their characters’ raw, almost animalistic longing to possess one another, the film’s dramatic centre always feels one step removed from where it needs to be. Heathcliff’s agony is tangible – moreso than Cathy’s – but the intensity does not quite come through as it should. We get a better sense of that side of the characters through the camera’s obsession with texture and tactile sensation, lingering on prickly mountaintop fauna, different types of feather, the burning red of Cathy’s billowing coat, or a fierce rainstorm splattering off Heathcliff’s despondent face. Arnold’s presentation is brave and astonishing, a serrated edge interpretation of a genre that has been blunt for far too long. If only its heart pounded a little stronger beneath that hardened skin, it might have really conquered the Heights in the way it only threatens to.