Wuthering Heights (15)

Starring: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Solomon Glave

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The Independent Culture

Someone once described standing before Constable's rainstorm paintings and feeling the urge to open an umbrella. Having spent two hours in front of Andrea Arnold's wind-whipped, rain-slashed Wuthering Heights I felt the urge to pick gorse off my coat, wipe the mud from my boots and warm my hands at a fire. Here is a film so deeply entrenched in nature that the experience is more like a monumental hike across wild country than anything we generally understand by a costume drama. It teaches you the real meaning of the word "buffeted".

Arnold has admitted her resistance to the idea of adaptations, but once Emily Brontë's anguished Gothic novel was offered to her she felt that she "had no choice". Fans of her previous films – the brilliant Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009) – will know not to expect a conventional approach to the book – and why would we demand such a thing in any case? You can tell from the first minutes that this wants to honour the wildness of Brontë's vision; by the end you admire the way it tries to honour the mystery. What has happened between the story's young couple seems less a romance than a negative of a romance, where love has been transfigured into something masochistic, thwarted, and brutal.

In this version the romantic antihero Heathcliff is black (played as a boy by Solomon Glave), a runaway slave found by a farmer, Earnshaw, on the streets of Liverpool and taken to live with his family on a remote Yorkshire hill farm. Brontë's "dark skinned Gypsy" is here disdained as a "nigger", shifting the burden of his brooding anger on to race more than class. Farmer's daughter Cathy (Shannon Beer) is at the outset an honest country lass, slightly bemused by the interloper, only revealing her stronger instincts by degrees. Beneath the blustery northern skies they roam the countryside on foot and on horseback, the handheld camera keeping so tight you can see the boy lean in to catch the scent of her hair. Robbie Ryan's signature shots in this film tend to be extreme close-ups, of faces, but also of nature caught on the wing – beetles, cobwebs, sunspots. Dialogue is pared to a minimum, while incidental music is banished almost entirely; instead we hear the wind gusting off the moors, or boots squelching in mud. It would not have been a surprise to hear the cameraman's teeth chattering.

Heathcliff's demotion in the household is ensured once old man Earnshaw dies, and Cathy's mean-minded brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) returns to claim his patrimony. The moment is effected in a neat edit between a travelling trunk thrown off a cart and a coffin being lowered into the earth. Hindley sets Heathcliff to work more or less as a slave, and insists on confining him to the muck and straw of the cattle-shed. The days of carefree frolicking with Cathy are over, or nearly over; having bunked off work to spend time with her he returns to the farm, and a whipping. A final wedge is driven between them when Cathy is taken up by a genteel local family, whom Heathcliff wastes no time in telling to "fuck off" (I don't recall this locution occurring in the novel). The soft candle-lit interiors of Cathy's new acquaintance are as much a shock as the shadowy austerities of Wuthering Heights itself, not the grand residence one would envisage but a rough family farmhouse.

Some viewers may baulk at such liberties, yet there is something irresistible in Arnold's commitment to the practice of showing rather than telling. Her sense of place, no less than in the lowering Glasgow estate of Red Road and the Essex badlands of Fish Tank, is magnificently particular. Where the film does become problematic is the final third, when Heathcliff makes a dramatic return to the neighbourhood he abandoned some years before, and finds Cathy married off to a drippy local gent named Linton. The leads are now played by James Howson (making his acting debut) and Kaya Scodelario, who both require a good deal more help than the script (by Arnold and Olivia Hetreed) provides. In their earlier guises the couple had a natural exuberance to carry them through the shyness and inarticulacy of youth: there is so much less need for talk when you feel spiritually at one with your beloved. The passage of years, however, requires a more verbal communication, at least for the sake of the audience. Denied this outlet, the leads resort to brooding looks that don't summon the massive tremors of passion supposedly roiling within them. James Howson, with the good looks of a young Jimi Hendrix, is simply too opaque. He hasn't enough about him to suggest that those long silences carry a great deal of meaning.

Rather than gather in intensity this Wuthering Heights seems to withdraw from its two leads; its introversion becomes morose and fogged-in. The cruelty of Heathcliff's treatment of Isabella Linton (Nichola Burley) looks to be the result of mere caprice rather than the animal pain he feels over Cathy's loss. And his weird relationship with Hindley's son (Michael Hareton) adds up to nothing more than a shared viciousness towards animals (I wonder how the puppy-hanging scenes will play with US audiences). In comparison with the bright comet trail Arnold has blazed in her first two features, this feels rather subdued. And yet it answers to something in the novel, both for its keen-eyed absorption in the elements, and its matter-of-fact awareness of human fragility. Brontë herself, having published her single novel in 1847, was dead the following year.