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With inspired casting and accentuation of so much muck and yuck, Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) means to wrest Wuthering Heights from the heaving bosom of Romantics majors and give it a good shake. But in the process, the viewer gets a pummeling, too. By film’s end, I felt so thoroughly wuthered I needed a warm bath and a nap.
Adapted from Emily Brontë’s novel by Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (Girl With a Pearl Earring), Wuthering Heights is presented in two parts. The first establishes the childhood bond between Catherine Earnshaw (Beer) and her adopted brother, the much-abused Heathcliff (Glave), while the second – clearly bracketed, though the passage of time is muzzy throughout – details their adult reckoning, when Heathcliff (Howson) returns to the Yorkshire moors to enact revenge on his tormentors and see Catherine (Scodelario) – now married “up” to Edgar Linton (Northcote) – once again. (The film does away with Brontë’s framing device and chucks the last third of the book about the second generation of Earnshaws and Lintons, as is commonplace with most feature adaptations.)
The first half is close to perfection in its evocation of the brutal landscape and its brutish inhabitants. Arnold doesn’t go so far afield from the book, which describes Heathcliff as dark-skinned, by casting black actors to play the part, and the film deepens with the additional friction of institutional racism. Catherine – played by first-time actor Beer as rambunctious and casually cruel but capable of profound empathy – is Heathcliff’s only champion, and he – silent and seething from so much abuse – opens his heart only to her. Too raw for talk, they bolt across the moors like wild animals, a pack of two, and when Heathcliff is whipped, Catherine licks the open wound like a she-cub. The moment – a startling bolt of tenderness, first-fledged eroticism, and shuddering anti-antiseptic – plays like a lightning strike illuminated by Arnold’s idiomatic artistry.
Miss the moment? You’ll see it again, and countless more, as Arnold pads the second half of her film with snatches of the first. It’s a tactic that fails on two counts, testing the audience’s patience – we’re savvy enough to trace their adult behavior back to the root without being reminded – and throwing into relief just how inferior the film’s second half is to what came before. I’m not convinced the source book can be blamed: Arnold finds a way to mine the early material to powerful effect, even for a Brontë fence-sitter like me, but hits rock with so much breast-beating and dumb behavior. That’s dumb meaning mute – Catherine and Heathcliff still haven’t figured out how to talk to each other – and dumb meaning, well, dumb. Intellectually, I submit, it hangs together – sometimes abused kids grow up to reenact the same cruelties, sometimes early attachments form our patterns henceforth – but all the skulking and frowning and howling plays like one long irritant, utterly divested of emotional freight. (Also, when one character clings to the dead body of another, one is ideally wet with tears, not wondering about the logistics and limitations of rigor mortis.) Despite the energetic, impassioned performances from Howson and Scodelario, their tormented affair isn’t harrowing, only empty and exhausting. I never found a way in, and I couldn’t wait for a way out.