Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold, 128 mins, 15 The Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson, 120 mins, 15

This dark, gloomy, dialogue-lite version of Emily Brontë's novel is just too grim to be borne. But another literary adaptation, starring Johnny Depp, literally hums with life

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The Independent Culture

As anyone who has seen Red Road and Fish Tank will know, Andrea Arnold is a no-frills realist whose hand-held camera inspects the grot of 21st-century lives.

She's not someone you'd expect to adapt and direct a classic Victorian novel. But Wuthering Heights is a jolly peculiar Victorian novel. It scraps several conventions of plot, time and relationships. Its female lead dies halfway through. The male lead, far from being a romantic hero, is a vengeful sadist. The theme isn't love but obsession, wildness, elemental emotions in an elemental landscape.

We get the elements and the landscape all right. Not one of the previous 17 adaptations of Emily Brontë's novel has (I can confidently assert) offered such extremes of wildness and weather. Yorkshire's timeless moorland is filmed in mud, tempest, downpour and darkness. Night scenes are shot with minimal natural light, indoor scenes in barely firelit gloom. The titular Heights doesn't resemble the mansion where Merle Oberon grew up in William Wyler's 1939 version; it's a poky farmhouse, where children sleep in unlit cupboards, and the family huddle with the dogs for warmth in the evening.

They're an uncouth bunch. When Heathcliff is introduced to the Earnshaw family, Cathy's first impulse is to spit in his face. Her thuggish brother Hindley punches him. He's regularly thrashed by his adopted father and the servant Joseph. But as he's put to work, he and Cathy start to hang out together, running through fields, riding horses, gazing at the sky, silently forging a connection outside social norms, one which will destroy lives.

Ms Arnold's main innovation is to cast Heathcliff as black. In the book, he's a gypsy foundling. Ellen, the housekeeper, speculates that he's descended from Indian or Chinese forbears. Brontë consciously makes him an unclassifiable outsider, who unsettles everyone and won't fit anywhere. In the film, he's simply a victim of racism. Hindley and the snobbish Lintons use the N-word, call him a circus monkey and suggest hanging him, as if they were Peckham bigots or Mississippi rednecks. I found these shifts of emphasis distracting rather than illuminating. Instead of dramatic exposition, Ms Arnold gives us an orgy of symbolic flora and fauna: white sheep, white geese, brown hills, brown rabbit corpses, black and white lapwing feathers. Flittering moths, hovering hawks, snared rabbits and caged birds ceaselessly nudge you to consider the themes of exclusion and predation.

The main problem, though, is the acting. As young Heathcliff, Solomon Glave manages impressive bursts of anger (he shouts "Fuck off, you cunts!" at the Lintons, which I don't remember in the book) but exudes nothing more savage than a brooding sulk. After his rise to prosperity, he returns (played by James Howson) looking like a 19th-century Zanzibar pimp – all frock coat, stock and cravat, coolly dispensing revenge and strangling a spaniel – but radiates little emotion. Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario, playing young and old Cathy, are adequate actresses but are given little dialogue. We get no sense of grown-up connection between the leads until Cathy is on her deathbed. This dark, near-silent film is just too grim to be borne.

The other literary adaptation of the week could not be more different in treatment. From the opening credits (a red plane swooping out of a blue Puerto Rican sky to Dean Martin singing "Volare"), The Rum Diary hums with life, the action punctuated by aerial shots and samba music, like a sonic picture postcard of the Caribbean, circa 1960.

Johnny Depp plays Paul Kemp, a hard-drinking hack hired by the fading San Juan Star as horoscope writer and bowling correspondent. His editor, a cigar-chomping Richard Jenkins, yells "I do not need another heavy drinker!", but his colleagues Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) live for 470-proof rum and extreme drugs. Kemp meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a crooked developer who enlists him in his evil plans to turn an unspoilt neighbouring island into a hotel resort. Things are complicated when Kemp falls for Sanderson's dreamboat girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard).

The film zips along, pitching our permanently sozzled or stoned hero ("How can anybody," yells his editor, holding up the unpaid hotel bill, "drink 169 miniatures?" "Aren't they complimentary?" counters Depp) into a series of well-handled scrapes. A scary encounter with hostile natives becomes a lethal car chase, with improvised flame-thrower. A carnival outing climaxes with a sexy dance between Chenault and a local hunk until a fight kicks off. Ms Heard is a sensation: a pretty Texan, she scrubs up into a Hollywood goddess to rival Grace Kelly. She shares a thrilling, who-will-scream-first car ride with Depp, in a Chevy Corvette almost as beautiful as she. And Depp, though a touch old for the character, is splendid as the coolly off-his-head charmer who wakes up to a conscience.

Bruce Robinson, the director of Withnail & I, was pulled out of retirement by Depp and Thompson to write the witty screenplay and direct. He plays up the despoiling-of-Paradise angle (which wasn't in the book) to give Depp's role more depth: the film's climax should be Kemp choosing between taking Sanderson's money or exposing his colonialist plans. Sadly, this plot-strand gets nowhere and the film ends in flat anticlimax. But if you can ignore that, there's much to enjoy: it's a dazzlingly shot, sometimes hilarious, sometimes hair-raising, picaresque tale of excess and commitment.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney reviews Snowtown, a grisly tale of serial killing in Australia