Film review | Wuthering Heights – A dull trudge across Emily Brontë’s wild and windy moors

Wuthering Heights - Solomon Glave as the young Heathcliff & Shannon Beer as the young Cathy

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.

Her adaptation of Brontë’s classic tale of doomed love is as unremittingly grim and uncompromising as her previous films, Red Road and Fish Tank. And the emotions on display are just as raw.

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.

Wuthering Heights - James Howson plays Heathcliff in Andrea Arnold's radical screen adaptation of Emily Bronte's classic novel

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.

On general release from Friday 11th November.

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