British director Andrea Arnold’s uniquely visual adaptation of Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights (2011) was deplored by many for its slow pace, sparse dialogue and lean narrative. Yet it is these exact ‘criticisms’ that adversely make Arnold’s film one of the most stylish, original period dramas of recent years. For those uninitiated with the source text, Wuthering Heights revolves around the eternal love between Heathcliff (Solomon Grave/James Howson in his adult form), a homeless boy from the streets of Liverpool and Catherine Earnshaw (Shannon Beer/Kaya Scodelario) the daughter of the Yorkshire hill farmer (Paul Hilton).
Despite being brutally beaten by Cathy’s vindictive older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw), Heathcliff (presented as an escaped slave in Arnold’s film) remains, intoxicated by his love for the girl. However, on discovering that Cathy is to be wed to another of higher social standing, Heathcliff departs, returning to Wuthering Heights as a grown man to wreak his revenge on those that have mistreated him.
Arnold plays loose and fast with the original text, preferring to capture its tone and atmosphere rather than covering every minor narrative event or plot device. For those less enamoured with Brönte’s text, Arnold’s highly cinematic re-imagining feels fresh and vital, a lean creature highly attuned to the moor’s ecosystem, red in tooth and claw.
Having cut her teeth with the critically acclaimed Red Road (2006) and gritty social realist drama Fish Tank (2009), Arnold proves herself equally adept at adapting a weighty, wordy literary monolith, stripping away reams of redundant dialogue in order to truly capture the ethereal, elemental truth of life and love on the heath. Intrinsic to the film’s success is regular Arnold DoP Robbie Ryan, who should be commended for shooting one of the most eye-catching films of 2011 – in a year that also brought us Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Whilst Arnold’s revisionist approach to Brönte’s magnum opus may not be to everyone’s taste, for those with the time and patience to invest in its trimmed cast and sublime imagery, Wuthering Heights delivers a truly unique, highly cinematic experience. Within the period drama genre – with the recent exception of Raúl Ruiz’s extraordinary four-hour-plus Portuguese odyssey Mysteries of Lisbon – this is an all-too-rare occurrence.