The turn-of-the-19th-century Yorkshire moors were not the ardent glens of most Wuthering Heights adaptations. A more accurate depiction—say, the one in Andrea Arnold’s self-consciously miserablist take—would turn the stomachs of Masterpiece Theatre partisans, with its gloomy greens, persistent rainfall, relentless wind, indecipherable working class accents and passion that never segues into the swoonily romantic. Although at one point to star Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, the casting of nobodies—namely James Dowson and Kaya Scodelario as Heathcliff and Catherine—is in keeping with Arnold’s realistic bent, which is to recreate the classic lit costume drama as it (allegedly) really would have been had it really happened.
And she almost gets away with it, too. There is much to admire in Arnold’s genre twist; I’ve neglected to mention the smudgy cinematography and the recasting of Heathcliff as a black immigrant, which is a maybe. (Brontë imagined him as a gypsy. Both would have faced persecution.) The story is still there, but there are few show-offy, tony set pieces: just a collection of brief scenes, with Arnold reimagining the novel as though she was rewriting it with her camera.
Despite all the visible mud and sweat, the pleasures remain mostly hypothetical. The grimy attack strategy has a way of diluting the source, making it elemental and, alas, thin. The first half, when Catherine and Heathcliff are kids (played by Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave) are its best moments, in part because Arnold’s instinctive style is a better fit with children. (And because the kids rather mop the floor with their adult analogues.) But also because at that point, Arnold’s shtick—and it is, ultimately, shtick—still seems fresh. By the time Heathcliff has been driven away from his beloved, only to return a wealthy man, hellbent on reunion with Catherine) and revenge on her brother, the novelty has worn off. Arnold can’t get inside her grown-up protagonists. Older Heathcliff, in particular, is a one-note bore, consumed with indignity and little else. Brontë’s prose filled in the gaps littered about Arnold’s Wuthering Heights like landmines. Soon a film that for a while seemed a refreshing rejoinder to generations of glazed-over adaptations becomes a different kind of problem.