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Review: Impeccable Imagery & Visceral, Subtle Performances Anchor Must-See ‘Wuthering Heights’

Review: Impeccable Imagery & Visceral, Subtle Performances Anchor Must-See 'Wuthering Heights'

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

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Debi Chess Mabie

I throughly enjoy this film…absolutely stunning and unquestionably provocative.


I saw WH a couple of nights ago. I was very curious about what Andrea Arnold was going to do with this material, on top of her casting choices re: Heathcliff. I really liked "Fish Tank;" Arnold is a primal, take-no-prisoners type of filmmaker. And I think that may have been too much of bump against the Bronte tradition. There was no middle with the film, either it was quiet and brooding or extremely intense and/or sensual. There was nothing for me to hang on to as a viewer; I didn't feel invested. I don't blame that on the actors; I thought they were good. I felt about Wuthering Heights the same way I felt after watching last year's "Jane Eyre:" I think Arnold was more concerned with setting a mood and eliciting emotions than TELLING A STORY. Also, I know that Arnold has a thing for 4:3 aspect ratio, but I think it was wasted here. With such luscious landscapes and eye to detail, Robbie Ryan's amazing cinematography begged for a 16:9 widescreen!!


It makes sense that Heathcliff was mixed or non-European. I never get tired of Wuthering Heights.


I was really interested in seeing this film by Andrea Arnold. Casting Heathcliff as nonwhite actually fell in line with existing scholarly research about Heathcliff's ethnicity–the certainty that he was not white or European, that he was likely mixed and/or from Africa or India. Mid 19th century England, particularly around Liverpool, a port city, was full of what were called "lascars," a name for any dark person who worked on the ship. While lascars are technically East Indians, the English lumped all dark people together, regardless of their country of origin.

So casting Howson as Heathcliff in an ethnic sense is more authentic that casting Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles. If Heathcliff had been a white guy, he would have fit in and grown up to be a happy guy, not the vilified monster he became.

My only complaint about Howson is that he never achieves the gravitas of Bronte's Heathcliff. And my only complaint about the film is that it was paced way too slow. For a book whose storyline I know well, I often lost the plot while looking at the film. The cinematography was exceptional, but the story just didn't come together for me. Still, it's worth a look.


Came out in the uk ages ago to complete indifference. There's been more than enough wuthering heights remakes to last a lifetime.
I'm only intrested in black stories told from a black perspective that are NOT about racism is that so hard to do?


I couldn't disagree more. This movie was boring and self-important. The cinematography was distracting and annoying. I had high hopes….oh well….


It has been showing in my area for a week but I have so much to see (including Middle of Nowhere and Argo) that I doubt I'll get to this before it is pulled from the arthouse cinemas. Your review is making me regret that choice.


I so want to see this!

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