There have been many screen versions of Wuthering Heights but we haven't seen one quite like this. Andrea Arnold's take on Emily Brontë's novel is very much the work of the same young director who showed through her films Red Road and Fish Tank that she is a filmmaker with a distinctive, uncompromising voice. That voice may be just what a tale as familiar as Wuthering Heights required to make it feel fresh and new on screen, and for at least half of this extraordinary picture, Arnold appears to do just that. For many independent filmmakers, such a prestige project might be seen as a step towards mainstream respectability, or a bid for awards credibility, and there's something appealingly perverse about the fact that Arnold has in fact taken this opportunity to produce her most challenging work yet. However, while it's easy to applaud her refusal to adhere to the customary tropes of so many genteel literary adaptations, the unforgiving austerity of her approach does make this Wuthering Heights a tough film to love.
Arnold immediately immerses us in the harsh world of 19th century Yorkshire, with the moors being filmed in a richly atmospheric fashion by the director and her supremely talented cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Even if it fails in certain departments, Wuthering Heights is an undeniably impressive visual achievement; visceral, beautiful and replete with striking images. Arnold and Ryan often let those images take prominence over the dialogue, which is blunt and naturalistic (I'm not sure Brontë ever penned the words, "Fuck you all. Cunts."), and that's a smart decision. Shooting in 1.33 and utilising handheld, intimate camerawork, they find shots that speak volumes about the relationship that develops between orphan Heathcliff (played as a child by Solomon Glave) and the spirited Cathy (Shannon Beer): their clasped hands plunging into mud, the torrential rain hitting their upturned faces, furtive glances stolen through a crack in a door.
The two untested young actors who play the lead characters as youngsters repay Arnold's faith in them. Glave has an interesting sullen quality while Beer is a thoroughly engaging screen presence, who superbly portrays her character's growing curiosity about and interest in the dark-skinned addition to their family. Their performances are a little raw but their scenes together feel terrifically alive, aided by the director's frequent cutaways to shots of the natural world that surrounds them; images of death and bleakness acting as a counterpoint to their charged emotional connection.
Alas, that's only half the movie. When Wuthering Heights jumps forward a few years to find Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) now married and Heathcliff (James Howson) returning to Earnshaw farm after a long, unexplained absence, I immediately started to sense that something had gone awry. All the vitality and boldness of the first half had drained away, and the two adults who step into the roles of Cathy and Heathcliff struggle to invest their turns with the same natural depth of feeling that their young co-stars possessed. In particular, the casting of Howson proves almost disastrous for the film, with his flat, uncharismatic and shapeless performance creating a hole in the centre of the picture where a complex, fascinating protagonist should be.
But it's not just the actors who fail to build on the fine work done in the first half, as Arnold also seems to lose her grip on the material in its latter stages. The film grows repetitive, recycling shots and motifs from the first half but without any of the accompanying impact, and this film about obsessive love, violence and passion ends up feeling oddly detached and increasingly unsure of itself as it progresses. Wuthering Heights is an arresting attempt to capture the dark nature of Brontë's novel, but as brilliantly evocative as Arnold's rendering of the wild, windswept landscape is, it fails to capture the similarly turbulent emotions at the heart of the tale. On a number of occasions in the film's second half, Arnold has Howson headbutt a wall or a tree, presumably in an effort to show us how much the lovesick Heathcliff is suffering, but while it certainly looked very painful, I never felt a thing.