Andrea Arnold has carved out a promising career as a director of visceral, earthy dramas, including Red Road and Fish Tank. For her third film she has chosen to adapt the classic Emily Bronte novel, Wuthering Heights. After two urban-set contemporary dramas, the film is a departure in it’s period setting and rural environment. Much has been said about Arnold emerging with a modern, refreshing take on the material. I have to confess that I have not read the source material so will review the film on it’s own terms.
A young foreign orphan is found and adopted into the household of the Earnshaw’s, a poor family living in a shabby house in the Yorkshire valleys. The god fearing father of the house baptises the boy and names him Heathcliff. The young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) is welcomed into the house by the curious daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer), but finds himself threatened by the remaining members of the family. Much of the drama is derived from this confrontation as the exotic, raw boy unnerves the household.
Arnold creates a vivid picture of life on the valleys; the roaming camera and superb sound design conspiring to throw the audience into every gust of wind, every clump of mud and grass between their fingertips. The environment is as important as the characters, a life force of it’s own, much like the streets and high rises of Red Road. The harshness is emphasised by the muted colour pallette, all variations of blue and brown. Heathcliff and Cathy devour the land beneath their feet, both liberated and oppressed by it’s stark, vast beauty. Romantic feelings sprout amongst the jagged hills, yet Heathcliff is downtrodden at home. The situation worsens when the samaritan father dies and the family’s goodwill towards Heathcliff evaporates.
After Wuthering Heights excellent first half, the film unfortunately takes a dip in quality. This can mostly be attributed to the introduction of the older Heathcliff and Cathy (James Howson and Kaya Scodelario), who struggle to replicate the nuanced, natural performances of the preceding young actors. As adult worries come to the fore and the two struggle to adapt to their new lives, the electricity of the earlier episodes begins to disappear. Scodelario in particular feels a little lightweight in her role.
This is a shame because for a large part of the film Arnold has an enthralling, animalistic drama on her hands. It is an atmospheric and sensory experience, and the doomed relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is touching without being sentimental. It is only in the final parts that the momentum starts to sag and the audience’s attention begins to slip away.