There have been many adaptations of Wuthering Heights, each with differing approaches and varying degrees of success. For me, each adaptation has, despite its best efforts, ultimately failed – largely due to a romanticised idealisation of the central relationship, as well as a tendency towards melodrama. Those who have read the novel will know that the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is entirely unsuited to a romantic representation: the pair treat others, and each other, cruelly. An insular relationship, dependent on one another, Cathy and Heathcliff effectively destroy the lives of those who become entangled with them.
Arnold’s film wisely chooses to adapt the first half of the novel, allowing Cathy and Heathcliff’s childhood to take up the central narrative. Few, if any of the previous adaptations have devoted such time to the centralpairing’s youth: decisions entirely questionable when we consider how much of the book is spent depicting their early youth. It is during these early years that their obsessive bond develops – without this focus, it is difficult for a viewer to understand the nature of their relationship.
There is little need to recount the events of Brontë’s novel, so embedded within culture are the names Cathy and Heathcliff that there are surely few who have not heard of the coupling in relation to romance.
Much of the critical commentary upon the film’s announcement and subsequent release has centred on the issue of casting, namely the youth of the cast and the casting of Heathcliff. Arnold’s film features the first black Heathcliff (played in his youth by Solomon Glave, and later by James Howson), enabling her film to focus upon the issues of racism raised in the source novel. Heathcliff’s isolation is far more acutely felt here, aside from his deep-felt connection with Cathy, he has no one else, rejected by the rest of the close-knit community.
Many have compared Arnold’s direction to that of Terrence Malick – certainly her attention to the details of nature are comparable, but Arnold’s depiction of nature is less static, less romanticised, holding far more potential for cruelty than that of Malick. The film astutely highlights the relationship between nature and that of the young lovers: Heathcliff and Cathy are forever retreating, ecstatically, to range far across the moors.
The young, largely unknown cast are a joy to watch, particularly the younger actors, Glaves and Shannon Beer as the young Cathy, both deeply engaging and charismatic. The film’s latter half feels, as it should, more stultified in comparison to the of the film’s earlier moments of utter release. The film’s latter half, in its claustrophobia, reflects the now caged Cathy, removed from her earlier abandon in her delight at the wild nature of the moors.
Beautifully shot, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights certainly isn’t perfect: there are some issues with the actors portraying the older Cathy and Heathcliff, largely a slight lack of chemistry, but the force of Arnold’s direction makes allowances for the film’s weaker moments.
Purists will undoubtedly baulk at the lack of literary dialogue: Arnold’s film prefers naturalistic cursing, and the resolutely unromantic approach to the relationship, but for me, this Wuthering Heights comes closest to capturing the essence of Brontë’s violent, passionate, often unruly novel.