Andrea Arnold’s latest screen adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights rings relevant and significant in its interracial twist of the star-crossed lovers. Seemingly inadvertently perhaps, the film carries with it historical connotation, a legacy of racial discrimination and “white superiority/privilege” told almost entirely from the point-of-view of a black Heathcliff.
This very element makes Arnold’s latest all the more poignant; it even feels overdue.
After all, aside from previous screen adaptations in which Caucasian actors have portrayed Heathcliff, the original novel describes the outcast male character as a gypsy with olive skin tone.
British newcomer James Howson is the first non-white actor cast as the adult Heathcliff; Solomon Glave portrays its pubescent counterpart.
For a little more than half of the film’s duration, the story is set – including flashbacks – while Heathcliff and Catherine are youngsters, two heathens without a care in the world rejoicing in their intense, co-dependent attachment; the latter, detrimentally affects an orphaned and destitute Heathcliff more so than the pampered Cathy, in this stage of their lives at least.
Mr. Earnshaw rescues a young Heathcliff (Glave), formerly an Afro-Caribbean slave, to join his family: an abusive son who despises the family addition, and his daughter Cathy (Shannon Beer), the latter who becomes the only source of love, real familial ties and kinship Heathcliff will ever know.
The languid, painterly landscapes evoke moods that range from serenity and innocent joy to melancholia and despair. Heathcliff sitting behind Cathy as they ride a horse; the wind blowing as Heathcliff catches her scent, the horse’s slow galloping insinuates precocious sexuality.
The shaky camera augers the anxiety and affliction felt by the main characters. The slow-burning narrative never loses momentum. Heathcliff runs away from being baptized and from a structured life he’s never known. He’s whipped; he’s beaten. He's called a nigger, a monkey. He finds refuge in Cathy – who literally licks his back wounds – and in the Heights’ hills.
Although well intentioned, Mr. Earnshaw begins to resent his daughter’s relationship with an “uncivilized” Heathcliff, and the black orphan’s influence in Cathy’s life. His son’s disgust and constant conflict with Heathcliff doesn’t help matters, and soon Heathcliff is relegated to fend for himself and find roof in the premises outside of the “big house”.
After Cathy distances herself from Heathcliff, the latter becomes self-destructive and withdrawn. He bangs himself against the walls; he finds solace in the rain. He ultimately leaves the Yorkshire countryside. Six years later, a handsome, strong and elegant Heathcliff, whose magnetic presence keeps you glued to the screen, comes back to the Heights to search for Cathy. He finds out from Cathy’s now ill-ridden brother that she is married.
Heathcliff is unlikable; he’s filled with hate and resentment. He courts Cathy’s sister-in-law in retaliation to Cathy’s new life without him. And without giving spoilers away, after some disturbing choices Heathcliff makes, some may find him impossible to root for. But he’s human and damaged, and his actions shouldn’t be at all surprising.
I only wished that Heathcliff and Cathy’s tempestuous relationship as adults could have been more developed. Their reunion scenes are brief, although they don’t lack tension in their subdued/controlled passion. The climactic scenes carry an emotional punch without diving into over-the-top melodrama.
The casting choices to portray the young/adult versions are superb. The first scene where they see each other as adults is thrilling. A stunning grown Cathy, played by Kaya Sondelario, hardly resembles the young, chubby-faced counterpart physically; yet it’s believable. The actors’ chemistry, mannerisms and demeanor makes you feel like the story picks up where it left off.
The British filmmaker (Fish Tank) has helmed an – what it seems at times minimalist – affecting and captivating film. The impeccable, gorgeous photography by Robbie Ryan is transfixing.
Arnold’s direction aided to elicit subtle and visceral performances sans literary clichés from the lead actors, who are led by instinct more than verbose scripted dialogue to convey the passion, angst and torment felt by Heathcliff and Cathy.
“You broke my heart…you killed me” – Catherine, Wuthering Heights 2012