In Wuthering Heights (Oscilloscope), the English director Andrea Arnold doesn’t so much adapt Emily Brontë’s much-loved 1847 novel as reconstruct it through the fog of a fever dream. This spare, often dialogue-free tone poem is the polar opposite of a Merchant Ivory-style literary costume drama: Rather than re-upholster the familiar story of Heathcliff and Catherine’s doomed love on the moors of Yorkshire, Arnold has chosen to strip it down to the bone. Gone are the multiple nested narrators, as well as nearly the entire second half of the book. What remains is an almost abstract flow of sounds and images that envelop the viewer like sense memories from some forgotten childhood: boots tromping through fields of black muck, twigs scraping at an icy window, dogs barking in the distance, candlelight reflecting off wet skin.
If you went in to this Wuthering Heights with no knowledge of the book or any of its many film adaptations, I’m not sure the contours of the story would ever fully emerge from the literal and metaphorical fog—and if you went in primed for bodice-ripping escapism, you might very well run out gasping with boredom somewhere around the beginning of hour two. But if you can slow down your movie metabolism enough to acclimate to its world, Arnold’s naturalistic retelling grasps an elemental truth about the novel. As much as it’s a story of romantic obsession, Wuthering Heights is a saga of familial hate, an unflinching look at the way cruelty and prejudice get handed down from one generation to the next.
In Arnold’s vision, the hatred heaped on Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by the Earnshaw household as a young teenager, is more explicitly racial than it was in the book. Described by Brontë as a dark-complexioned “gipsy” or “Lascar” of uncertain origin, Heathcliff is played here by two black men (Solomon Glave as a young man, James Howson as an adult), and the epithets hurled at him by his spiteful adopted brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) include the n-word. After Earnshaw père dies suddenly, Hindley and his sister Catherine (played by Shannon Beer as a teen and Kaya Scodelario as an adult) clash over Heathcliff’s fate. Hindley insists he be ejected from the house and kept on as a lowly farmhand, while Catherine begs for Heathcliff to remain a member of the family. When the obstinate, hard-drinking Hindley won’t listen, Catherine simply spirits Heathcliff away from his chores for long tromps on the sodden, windswept moors. (It’s unclear whether their teenage love is ever consummated, but there’s a good deal of wrestling in the mud.) Eventually, Catherine is courted by their wealthy neighbor Edgar Linton (Oliver Milburn), whose proposal forces her to make a choice between civilization (or is it enervation?) and savagery (or is it freedom?).
The decision Catherine makes, and the ever-widening circle of suffering it causes, becomes the focus of much of the rest of the novel, but if Arnold’s impressionistic retelling unfolds from any one character’s point of view, it’s Heathcliff’s. The film opens on him as an adult, back at the farm known as Wuthering Heights, where he’s beating his forehead bloody against a wall that has Catherine’s name carved in it. Soon we jump back in time to learn what it is that’s left him so distraught. From there, the back story comes at us in scattered fragments of memory that seem to combine the perspective of both young lovers (fittingly enough, since, as Cathy avers in the novel, “I am Heathcliff”): the muddy hem of a skirt seen from behind as Cathy runs down a hill. The two of them after a day on the moors, laughing as Cathy identifies feathers they’ve collected. Then, more ominously, an unflinching close-up on the seemingly real slaughter of a young goat (though the credits assure us no animals were harmed in the making of this film, there will also be trapped rabbits and woefully mistreated house dogs.) The primal bond that links the young pair (half-fraternal, half-romantic) is established with no exposition and barely any dialogue—in one scene, Heathcliff’s back is covered in cuts after a savage beating from Hindley, and Cathy licks them clean with the naturalness of an animal grooming its wounded mate.
The screenplay, by Arnold and Olivia Hetreed, must have made for a slim bundle of paper to carry around the set: We hear far less human speech than we do of creaking floorboards and the howling Yorkshire winds that gave the titular farm its name. The sound design by Nicholas Becker is ingeniously layered, allowing all the homely ambient noises of Yorkshire farm life—crying babies, clattering carriage wheels—to coexist at once in the viewer’s ear, all of it bringing us information about what’s happening just outside the frame. (The film’s sonic austerity falters only in the final moments, when a contemporary folk song by the British band Mumford and Sons appears on the soundtrack.) Robbie Ryan’s cinematography (the film is shot on HD video in the same square-shaped ratio he used for Arnold’s last film, Fish Tank) is bleakly stunning. He makes the moors look at once diaphanous and earthy, using a palette so bled of color that the movie appears, at moments, to be shot in black and white.
I don’t want to oversell Wuthering Heights as a masterpiece: Audiences coming to the film in search of a passionate love story may be frustrated by Arnold’s privileging of mood and atmosphere over dramatic conflict or character development. At times the loving, suffering humans on-screen seem less like characters than mere elements of the Yorkshire landscape—no doubt a deliberate choice on Arnold’s part, given the film’s focus on the pitiless cruelty of nature (human and otherwise). And the casting of inexperienced young actors alongside more polished older ones results in some jarring tonal shifts—Shannon Beer has a wonderful freshness and immediacy as the hoydenish young Cathy, but it’s hard to believe she’d grow up into the poised and elegant Kaya Scodelario. Still, for me, Wuthering Heights’ almost impersonal immersion in the light and texture and sound of the moors was the source of its vividness and necessity. In order for the art of literary adaptation to remain vital, we have to be willing to let directors throw aside the book and film their dream of it.