Let’s see now, how can I put this diplomatically? Oh, to hell with it—I can’t.
Director Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a horrible movie. It’s a clumsy mangling of Emily Brontë’s novel to begin with, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker if the movie showed any kind of style. Instead, it’s devoid of even the most basic rudiments of moviemaking—a dreary, interminable waste of two hours and nine minutes’ worth of film and time. It might also be a waste of talent, but I can’t be sure about that: The players are all unfamiliar to me (in fact, most of them are making their screen debuts here), and it’s impossible to tell from this mess whether or not they have any talent to waste.
Shreds of Brontë survive in Arnold and Olivia Hetreed’s script. We still have Heathcliff (played as a boy by Solomon Glave, as a man by James Howson), Catherine Earnshaw (first Shannon Beer, then Kaya Scodelario), Catherine’s sadistic brother Hindley (Lee Shaw), and her straitlaced suitor Edgar Linton (Jonny Powell, James Northcote). Those who are familiar with the novel or any of its 15 or 20 movie and TV adaptations will probably be able to follow this one (more or less) as it plods leadenly through the years covered by the story.
Arnold’s most daring stroke is to cast two black actors as Heathcliff. This isn’t as radical a stretch as it may seem. In the novel, Heathcliff is described as a black-eyed, black-haired “gipsy brat,” and his status (or lack of it) as a despised outsider is a constant torment. (I remember once watching the classic 1939 version with a friend who, not quite grasping the rigid class system of 18th-century England, kept wondering what Heathcliff’s problem was.) Making Heathcliff African instead of “gipsy” underlines his otherness, but it also introduces a level of meaning Brontë never dreamed of—when other characters call him (in their Yorkshire accents) “niggeh,” or flog him for shirking his work, or say things like, “We should just hang you now, boy, and save the county the trouble.”
The problem with Solomon Glave and James Howson’s performances isn’t the color of their skin, but the lack of color in their characters. Neither have acted before and it shows. Where Brontë’s Heathcliff is brooding and Byronic, theirs is blank and bland. There’s no trace of the mystic bonds that tie Heathcliff’s soul to Cathy’s (Shannon Beer is equally inexperienced; only Kaya Scodelario has any résumé), and without that, Wuthering Heights is less than nothing. (As if to acknowledge this, Arnold banishes Cathy’s dramatic declaration, “I am Heathcliff!”—the emotional heart of the story—to the very end, after the last of the credits have rolled by and the audience is safely out of the theater. Did Arnold fear the inevitable snorts of derision?)
As it happens, that line, late as it comes, is one of the few that survive from the novel. Arnold and Hetreed eliminate almost all dialogue. When the characters speak, it’s seldom in Brontë’s words, and Arnold and Hetreed’s paraphrasing is a sloppy substitute. After one of brother Hindley’s typically spiteful acts, Cathy snarls, “You’re a fookhead, Hindley!” In response to the Linton family’s snobbery, Heathcliff barks, “Fook you all, cunts!” Most hilarious of all, when Heathcliff returns to find Cathy and Edgar married, he tells her, “You’ve treated me so badly, Cathy. You think you can be nice and everything’ll be OK.” For the record, Wuthering Heights takes place circa 1780: “OK” entered the language 60 years later and 3,000 miles away.
Finally, a few words about Robbie Ryan’s camera work: It stinks. In a perfect world, it would be enough to get Ryan expelled from The British Society of Cinematographers. Whole scenes are out of focus and clumsily framed. Interior and night scenes are black and indistinguishable. We not only can’t see faces, we often can’t even see bodies: Ryan and Arnold, out of some demented fetish for “authenticity,” evidently refused to employ any light source that wasn’t available 250 years ago. There are 9-year-olds on YouTube who could teach Robbie Ryan some things about photography. Some of them, perhaps, could even teach Andrea Arnold a few things about Emily Brontë.