The latest adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights is over two hours of bleak moors and longing looks, and not much else. For those who haven’t read the book or seen any of the other film versions, the story follows Heathcliff, portrayed by Solomon Glave (young Heathcliff) and James Howson (adult Heathcliff). He is abandoned as a boy and taken in by a family as something between a child and a servant. He develops an unbreakable bond with Cathy, the daughter of the house portrayed by Shannon Beer (young Cathy) and Kaya Scodelario (adult Cathy). But their relationship is doomed to fail. The only striking change in director Andrea Arnolds’s version is that Heathcliff is black (the character is usually described as a Gypsy), which is intended to make it even clearer to the audience that he and Cathy cannot be together. In actuality, it makes little difference to the plot, except to change the specific slurs that are hurled at him by Cathy’s brother.
Cathy and Heathcliff are animals. They run wild on the moors, and Arnold depicts them as one with nature. However, the actors’ lack of chemistry makes it difficult for us to see them as compatible with even each other. The characters brutally abuse animals, killing rabbits in the field without flinching and hanging dogs from posts by the collar for amusement. They’re brutal towards each other as well. As children and adults, Cathy and Heathcliff get into physical fights, scratching and pulling hair. In an especially cringe-worthy scene, Cathy licks Heathcliff’s wounds clean after he is whipped by her brother. The characters’ abuse of one another also extends into the emotional realm as their mutual obsession manifests itself in cruelty. The acting is as blank and empty as the vast moors, however, so it just seems like they enjoy beating each other up.
Because of the emphasis on the animalistic nature of the characters, there is very little dialogue to carry the audience through the story. You have to know the plot to follow the film. Most of the lines from the novel that other adaptations overdramatize were not even included, or were underemphasized. The characters exist in a universe where everything is based on instinct.
Unfortunately, that gives us no greater insight into their emotions or motives for their behavior conveyed so well by the novel and other adaptations (e.g. ITV’s version, aired in the US on PBS’s Masterpiece).
The director does manage to show the bleak and desolate moors better than most—everything in the film is some shade of gray or brown, and there are several beautiful shots of the Northern English landscape. But the odd choice to film Wuthering Heights in the old Academy ratio (1:1.33) rather than widescreen (1:1.8) doesn’t take full advantage of the mournful setting. While the film may interested devotees of Brontë’s original novel, its gaunt exploration of the grittier side of the classic story would most likely bore the average viewer.