This is Wuthering Heights like you've never seen it before. It's raw, rugged, bloody and bruised. There are sheep getting their throats cut, dogs straining at leashes, wild and windy moors lashed with rain and, yes, moths futilely beating their wings (I counted two or maybe three) against window panes. Not only that but Heathcliff is black (as in African) and Cathy is a wildish thing with a penchant for feathers and an unbridled love of nature. In short, gritty director Andrea Arnold (the disturbing Red Road; the unsettling Fish Tank) has taken Emily Bronte's timeless classic and splashed it down into a blue-collar world. Or if you prefer some cinematic landmarks – it's like Night of the Hunter meets Kes meets Ryan's Daughter meets a good hiding!
Arnold strives for the primal and elemental as if this is altogether a good thing: I'm not too sure – after all there are only so many moths flinging themselves at windows that you can take before you shout out 'David Lean'! Her version strips the 1847 novel bare to its bones. In fact, Arnold strips it so naked that she opts to leave half the story off the screen – as the film ends curiously with a distraught Heathcliff wandering off into the moors. There's ne'er a whisper of young Cathy or Heathcliff's son or all the vengefulness and greed that follows. But then Arnold is not alone in paring Wuthering Heights to the story of two inseparable souls torn apart by love. That is not necessarily a fault – less can sometimes give you more - but for all its rare and elemental imagery and action, we are still mired in a rough romanticism as flawed as its pastoral Mills and Boon counterpoint.
In Arnold's version Heathcliff – a street urchin described in Bronte's book as being of gypsy looks and speaking gibberish – is a black kid with vicious whip weals on the flesh of his back (Solomon Glave plays the young Heathcliff, newcomer James Howson the older version). Cathy is almost similarly feral. And so the two become as thick as thieves, especially when Cathy's brother, the brutish Hindley, takes to battering Heathcliff every chance he gets. Despite all the charges of revisionism, Arnold sticks fairly closely to Bronte's text. She does not flinch from the miserable (Wuthering Heights looks like a right kip) or the brutal in a novel riven with violence and moral complexity, but there is a curious paucity of passion.
There is one true and moving moment: when Heathcliff returns to the big house and sees Cathy (the eye-catching Kaya Scodelario) for the first time since she married Edgar. It's then he sees what he has lost – they both see it – and this encounter carries so much more power than the later despair and clawing at graves and all the rest of that. Intent on capturing the raw brutality, it fails to capture Bronte's sometimes savage Heathcliff, a man not averse to physically beating those weaker than him.
Nevertheless, this is a noble and ambitious attempt to reclaim the true heart of Bronte's revolutionary, passionate and sometimes savage novel. Perhaps Arnold's problem is not that she should have try harder, but in fact that she probably tried too hard.