Merchant-Ivory this is not. Nor is it any Emily Brontë we've seen before, except maybe in Luis Buñuel's wild Mexican rendition, Abismos de pasión (1954). Instead, Andrea Arnold distills the great novel into a flinty essence, creating a work that is the 19th-century Yorkshire version of her modern-day urban wastelands in films like Red Road and Fish Tank. She is equally ruthless with Brontë's prose, eliminating most of the original dialogue. Nonetheless, the film achieves its own harsh beauty and begrudging pathos.
More storm-battered than otherworldly, the moors here sprawl out like a mossy lunar landscape, and the mucky, ramshackle homestead of the title, where the patriarch Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) takes in the foundling Heathcliff, looks like the setting for the mud-gathering scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Natural beauty abounds, but so does natural cruelty, like the casual slaughter of animals, including puppies hung from a fence. It's a godforsaken place that suits Arnold's style, as she tells the story with images and sound edited into a dreamlike flow that evokes the subjective passage of time.
She also emphasizes Heathcliff's feral nature and the contempt and abuse he receives from his jealous adoptive brother, Hindley, and from snobby Edgar Linton of the posh neighboring estate. Underscoring the outsider's pariah status, Arnold casts two black actors, Solomon Glave and James Howson, to play the younger and older versions, with race added to as a stigma. This strategy works especially well with the younger edition of the character, as Glave's scenes with Earnshaw's pre-adolescent daughter Catherine (Shannon Beer) — who treats him at first as an exotic animal — develop an innocent eroticism. It's the closest that the film gets to being pastoral.
But Heathcliff flees when Catherine gets gussied up for the wealthy Lintons, returning years later with a mysterious fortune. His desire for her has not ebbed, nor hers for him, even though she has since married the toffee-nosed Edgar (James Northcote). Regrettably, whatever elemental passion the two younger actors tapped in these characters eludes their successors (James Howson and Kaya Scodelario). But Arnold has not lost any of her inspiration; a scene in which Heathcliff collapses in grief by a gnarly tree is an epiphany of despair. Unfortunately, the tree steals the scene. No matter; Arnold's film remains a compelling evocation of injustice and destructive love.
>> READ MORE: Peter Keough's interview with director Andrea Arnold <<
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org