Having earned acclaim for two gritty present-day social dramas, British director Andrea Arnold turns her attention to the past, but she steers clear of costume drama frippery with a provocative screen version of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
The first time farmer’s daughter Cathy meets soul mate Heathcliff she spits in his face. Reunited as adults, almost her first act is to pin his neck beneath her foot. That’s in keeping with the emotional turmoil at the heart of Brontë’s book – but elsewhere her adaptation goes seriously awry.
True, the Yorkshire moors – captured in natural light – are every bit as windswept and rain-lashed as you’d expect. But Arnold’s trademark use of shaky hand-held cameras makes the film tiring and oppressive to watch. As does her relentless focus on brutality – towards humans and, particularly, towards animals.
One fatal flaw.
It’s the acting, though, that is the biggest disappointment and flaw. Controversially, Arnold has re-imagined the character of Heathcliff as a runaway African slave. This slant skews the story, but it does effectively emphasise the foundling Heathcliff’s status as a despised outsider and gives a keen edge to his mistreatment.
Arnold’s radical approach might have worked but for one fatal flaw. Her Heathcliff can’t act. James Howson, who plays the adult Heathcliff, is an untried newcomer – as was Katie Jarvis when Arnold cast her in Fish Tank. But whereas Jarvis brought a freshness and authenticity to her role, Howson is dull, flat and totally lacking in charisma.
And with no chemistry between his Heathcliff and Kaya Scodelario’s Cathy (played more successfully as children by Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave), their all-consuming, obsessive love fails to come alive. Full praise to Arnold for ridding her adaptation of all trace of heritage-film gentility and decorum. Such a shame she jettisoned the book’s passion and poetry too.
Wuthering Heights is on general release from Friday 11th November.