For people of a certain age, Wuthering Heights typically means two things: an Emily Bronte novel encountered in musty public-school classrooms or a black-and-white 1939 film starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, seen mostly on small, black-and-white television screens during the 1950s.
Although Bronte’s novel — published in 1848 and set mostly in late 1700s — has been dramatized by others, it’s impossible for me to get William Wyler’s 1939 version out of my mind. Watching Wyler’s movie some 20 years after it was released, I found myself marveling at the movie’s mixture of cruelty, passion and romance. I must have been about 16.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Now comes another version of Bronte’s tale, this one from director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank). Replacing Olivier and Oberon — who were great luminous stars — are James Howson and Kaya Scodelario, actors who bring a measure of dreary anonymity to these signature roles.
Howson and Scodelario play Heathcliff and Cathy as adults; Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer portray them as youngsters when Cathy’s father (Paul Hilton) brought Heathcliff to the Yorkshire heath after finding him adrift in wretched urban poverty.
Heathcliff — played in this leaden version by two black actors — is supposed to fit perfectly into his natural surroundings. Brooding and shorn of social pretense, Heathcliff’s soul can howl like the winds that whip across the moors, something Olivier conveyed better than either of the actors in Arnold’s movie.
Having decided to immerse the story in the mud of 18th century naturalism, Arnold goes wrong almost from the start. We don’t turn to Wuthering Heights for brutally accurate depictions of 18th century British farm life or for scenes that take place in gravely darkened rooms. We turn to Bronte’s story for the yearning and romantic pull that’s tempered by Heathcliff’s scorching hatreds and Cathy’s blithe neglect of his near-preternatural devotion.
This time, the moors seem as bleak as they are wild and tumultuous. Arnold tries to take the story into primal terrain, but the movie’s sodden naturalism robs it of energy.
The major events of the novel are present in Arnold’s adaptation: Heathcliff is reviled by Mr. Earnsaw’s cruel son (Lee Shaw); Cathy eventually matures and marries Edgar Linten (James Northcote), a gentrified neighbor; Linten’s sister (Nichola Burley) tries to give Heathcliff the love he craves, but he can’t accept her affections. Cathy dies. Her spirit haunts poor Heathcliff and the moors.
By miring the story in the harsh realities of rural English life, Arnold doesn’t revivify the material; she nearly destroys it, allowing the story to plod along as if it were wearing heavy work boots. This version of Wuthering Heights sinks more than it soars.