If the new “Wuthering Heights” makes you uncomfortable, that’s part of Andrea Arnold’s game plan. The British director of “Red Road” (2006) and “Fish Tank” (2009) — modern-day dramas about tough-minded women making hard, often foolish decisions —knows that Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel caused readers and critics of the period to squirm in distaste. A typical review, in Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, called the book “a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.”
Arnold wants to rescue the stark wildness of Brontë’s writing, to capture afresh its austerity and primitive emotionalism. She’s a visionary, not a revisionist. Not for her the epic sweep of the 1939 William Wyler version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, the rococo surrealism of the 1954 Luis Bunuel film, or the prettified grit of the recent BBC adaptation with Tom Hardy. This “Wuthering Heights” feels like a rough found object, filmed with hand-held camera, using natural light, shot in shallow, shifting focus. There’s no soundtrack music other than the eternal groaning of the wind on the moors.
Oh, and Heathcliff’s black. This isn’t as much of a stretch as you might think, since Brontë described her foundling boy as “a dark-skinned gipsy,” and the character is clearly from Away. The two actors portraying him — Solomon Glave as the young Heathcliff and James Howson as the older, returned version — possess a brooding, suppressed rage that stems as much from the Yorkshire locals’ racism as from their distrust of any outsider. The ethnic change-up is a risk that works, only occasionally playing as postmodern gimmickry.
Arnold’s a formidable director, intuitively visual and attuned to ruinous passions, and the first half of “Wuthering Heights” is a strong, stark tale half-glimpsed by firelight. The movie deposits us in its world without formal introductions: a rough-hewn Christian father (Paul Hilton); his angry, jealous son (Lee Shaw); a young daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer, thrillingly plain), in touch with the muck and majesty of the moors. The dialogue is minimal; these are people who don’t see the need for language and who pay dearly for that belief.
Brontë’s themes of wildness versus civilization are subtly illustrated through the use of windows: Heathcliff and Cathy inside looking out at nature, outside at night looking in at the lamplit domesticity of the Lintons. By contrast, the film’s close-ups of wildlife — buzzing moths, caged birds — are heavy-handed.
Purists will kick, too, since Arnold has done away with the framing Lockwood story line and the entire second half of the novel. But “Wuthering Heights” has always been impossible to shape for the screen. More difficult to swallow is the movie’s second half, when the older Heathcliff returns from his wanderings to find Cathy (now played by Kaya Scodelario) married to Edgar Linton (James Northcote).
The director’s semaphoric style — each scene a crudely fashioned dot we’re meant to connect on our own — betrays her here, and the naturalism she captured so effortlessly in the early scenes turns pretentious and forced. The film scampers to keep up with its own narrative; Arnold is so much stronger on atmosphere than event that she comes to seem resentful of Brontë’s plot, and the final scenes are less discomfiting than laughable. For all its daring, this “Wuthering Heights” shows us a gifted filmmaker pursuing a path so rigorous she forgets where it was supposed to take her.