Though it is based on Emily Bronte’s novel, this is "Wuthering Heights" as you’ve never seen it before. Director Andrea Arnold has captured something rich and essential, seamlessly intertwined memory and time and created a beautiful, breathtaking sensual experience worthy of contemplation.
When a young boy, Heathcliff, is brought home to the Earnshaw household as an act of charity, he begins a lifelong attachment to the young daughter Cathy, forming an obsessive relationship that threatens both their lives as the two grow older. Heathcliff is treated harshly throughout, beaten and abused, all of which he suffers gladly to be near Cathy, though when she marries another man, he strikes out on his own. His eventual return brings up old wounds and difficult questions as the pair attempt to understand how love can be so damaging.
Memory and time are inextricably bound up in one another, from the young years of Cathy and Heathcliff, the loneliness of the moors, the solitary nature of the life that the pair lead allows them to be tied up entirely, lost in the depths of one another. Cathy’s eventual assent into womanhood is so difficult for Heathcliff that he must flee, but back he comes eventually, drawn to her by a love and devotion born of the fact that Cathy is the only kindness that he has ever known. Often, in the second half of the film, moments from childhood would pop up, almost unbidden, filling out their present reality the way that memory often does, everything reminding us of everything else.
The cruelty and hardship suffered by Heathcliff is so constant in this film that it’s only balanced out by Cathy's kindness and the rough and rugged beauty of the natural world itself. The world surrounding Cathy and Heathcliff is a character all its own, who has a say in every moment, whether it's pouring rain or the relentless winds. The heavy presence of all manner of flora and fauna helps to temper the sadness and harshness with microcosms of beauty, all which go noticed, and are preserved and presented by Arnold’s careful hand. The period clothing and setting is realistic and stunning at times, the chill of the winds whipping through the farm house, the heavy drag of mud along a skirt. The film is built from details, smaller beautiful moments stacked on astounding broad English imagery, but it's almost an entirely immersive experience, and deeply affecting, as such.
The performances are shattering and wonderful to watch, particularly that of a dark-skinned Heathcliff, played at a young age by Solomon Glave and a later age by James Howson, remarkably powerful, communicating volumes through silences and a single glance. Similarly impressive are the performances by Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario as Catherine, gentle and torn between childhood and adulthood, between love and duty. Issues of race are barely vocalized, though they remain ever present and sensuality runs strong throughout every moment. Arnold's habit of hiring non-actors for a variety of roles has paid off handsomely again, with many natural and moving performances wrought from seemingly unlikely places.
The dialogue is purposefully and appropriately sparse, how could one adequately put words or name to the depths of feeling conveyed much better through touch, glance, sound and sight? Though one wonders if Heathcliff and Cathy have ever said more than a few thousand words to one another, the bond and agreement between them feels ever so clear to Heathcliff, and perhaps even more so to Cathy, though we as an audience stand alongside Heathcliff and see most vividly from his point of view. He, and us as the audience, are forever looking in on the people and society around him. Learning by watching, through the cracks in the walls, the floorboards, going unnoticed by the people around him and soaking in everything, finding our way back to Cathy, again and again.
For those who have never read the book, it will matter little as Arnold has taken care to develop an easily understood world and a felt story apart from the bleak novel. Arnold, along with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, is particularly gifted at evoking a strong and all-consuming sense of place, filling the screen with gorgeous, vibrant images and the sounds that go along with them, whistling winds, clanging pots and pans, every scene seems to evolve through the main striking images then the smaller details that memory grasps hold of, on down to the microscopic moments of color, texture and sound that must be experienced.
If it sounds exhausting or tiring, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the world of Arnold’s "Wuthering Heights" is utterly absorbing, she has created something lasting and beautiful, the kind of film that is entirely engaging. We have the option every day of adding or subtracting from the world around us, and Arnold’s film, with a delicate hand and a sensitive touch, has added greatly, filling a void we did not know existed.