It’s been a long time since I read Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” back in the 9th grade. I can recall a few things. The novel makes extensive use of framing devices, revealing itself through multiple layers of storytelling. There are sweeping descriptions of the countryside and the power of nature, a hallmark of Romanticism. Mostly I remember that the story is terribly complex, necessitating a detailed family tree in my edition of the book. I retain grand impressions of its style and emotion, but not very many of the specifics.
Thankfully, that may be the best background to bring to “Wuthering Heights,” Andrea Arnold’s uncompromising new film. Watching the director toss away major aspects of the novel, while simultaneously throwing herself passionately into others, is a truly fascinating experience. The framing devices are totally gone, leaving the film with a barebones narrative that opens with the young Heathcliff’s initial arrival at the Earnshaw home. He and Cathy grow up together before our eyes as clear misfits in a world of violence, tightly conceived notions of race and class, and devoutly uncomplicated religion. Faithful to the basic skeleton of Brontë’s work, Arnold seems much more interested in the desperate and sweeping emotionality than the minutia of this 19th century tale.
This approach works magnificently, for at least the first 45 minutes of the film. DP Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is nothing less than extraordinary, capturing the intimate and darkly constricting atmosphere of the house just as effectively as the overwhelming and mystically vast Yorkshire moors. “Wuthering Heights,” if nothing else, is a spectacular atmospheric triumph that brilliantly expresses the deeply romantic whirlwind of Brontë’s novel. It is a film about the colossal and overwhelming experience of love at its most tempestuous, expressed through the grandest metaphor of all: Nature itself.
As long as Heathcliff and Catherine are still children, Arnold has absolutely no trouble painting this grandiose and meteorological canvass with ease. An endless series of almost impossibly stunning visuals are coupled with the earnest and uncomplicated performances of the young actors (Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer), who are left at their most elemental. There’s very little dialogue, which only supports Arnold’s decision to refrain from any musical accompaniment. The soundtrack is populated almost exclusively by the wind itself, blustering around the two houses like the natural manifestation of longing. Then the kids grow up.
Kaya Scoledario and James Howson are perfect choices aesthetically and they both have a marvelous talent for emotional expression. If Arnold had used these two as quietly and directly as their younger versions, it would have worked out perfectly. Yet the screenplay is just too unforgiving. There are bold declarations of emotion in the second half of “Wuthering Heights” that require the great weight and studied talent of a Brian Cox or Vanessa Redgrave, in the manner of an audacious Shakespearean drama such as “Coriolanus.” Instead, Arnold’s obdurate dialogue only makes the inexperience of her cast even more obvious, inducing laughs in the audience when it should inspire chills. In theory, these untested actors should fit in with the rawness of the film as a whole, but in execution the latter half of “Wuthering Heights” simply cannot sustain its vastness.