Wuthering Heights

FATE'S CHILDREN: The young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Catherine (Shannon Beer) explore the bleak countryside in 'Wuthering Heights.'

Andrea Arnold isn't the first woman to direct a version of Wuthering Heights, but she has directed the least romantically idealistic version ever made. Her Wuthering Heights is a bold, fierce film of mutually assured destruction.

Circa 1800, a Liverpool orphan is brought to the moors. He endures floggings throughout his stepchildhood, in which the only relief comes from his platonic other half and stepsister, Catherine. As a girl, Catherine (Shannon Beer), is broad-faced and tough. As a lady (Kaya Scodelario), she's a poseur with great luminous eyes, cold as quartz—not a lark but a hawk.

Arnold (of the excellent Fish Tank) modernizes the story somewhat. Although she keeps the costumes of the period, the arrogant brother, Hindley (Lee Shaw), looks and moves like any English skinhead you'd avoid. And James Howson, the nonprofessional actor Arnold hired as Heathcliff, is of African ancestry.

The bad children's initials left as graffiti on the dingy walls make their home look like the corridor of a housing estate. In the nature scenes, Arnold's eye for weeds, rain-wetted rocks and briars resembles the scoping of these Yorkshire hills in the documentary Rivers and Tides about the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy.

While you can see where Arnold has tacked close to the present, there's no maddening sense of anachronism. A startled character says, "What the fuck?," where Emily Bronte might have written, "He uttered an oath," but this tactic doesn't break the frame.

The book is more violent than many remember: the drunken Hindley threatening to crop his child's ears like a pit-bull's; the story of the bird's nest with the small skeletons in it. Arnold pauses over the furred and feathered corpses gathered for the table, with the blood in close-up dripping from a hung-up pheasant's eye; and shows us the live Spaniel punished in lieu of herself. (The official seal saying no animals were injured is a relief.) Arnold's insistence on this cruelty is part of the paganism and hardness of this land. It's essential to our knowing what life there would look like.

Howson may appear uncomfortable in one weeping scene, but his limits as an actor are otherwise an asset. He keeps his mystery; he's handsome and sullen. When Hindley calls Heathcliff a "blackguard," it's meant to be a racist slur. But perhaps Hindley is right. The source of Heathcliff's money has baffled scriptwriters for generations. Looking at Howson one thinks that maybe Heathcliff was a highwayman, a Captain Macheath.

As for the melodrama, the muddy physicality of Arnold's version undercuts it. Bronte herself proved how young and fast they died in those days. The make-up is authentic, and in a shot of Paul Hilton's Mr. Earnshaw, the specter of tuberculosis is practically sitting on his chest. In one scene, a newborn's squalling turns, without a beat, into the scrape of a gravedigger's spade.

Arnold's cuts to the text include the removal of the pastry crust and doily with which the novel was first served. Gone is the framing device of a commentator, that tourist exclaiming at the bad manners and the quaint dialect. The opening shot is of a swaying Heathcliff, as good as dead in the haunted farm he now owns: a sty, a byre, more like.

This is the muddiest Wuthering Heights seen—also the most immediate. The young Cathy and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) wrestle in the mud, and Cathy flashes a clouded smirk of triumph even as she's pinned; we're seeing the exact moment of pubescence arriving. The moment is doubled later when we see Cathy as a fancy, kittenish married lady.

Cathy's riding costume provides the only real red in a movie where even the blood is brown or black. She forces Heathcliff into the mud this time; with the sole of her boot on his face, she asks, "How could you have left this? How could you have left me?" We see the witch in her, in the condescending kiss she gives her husband as she goes riding with her true lover. This story of cursed love is so imperatively told, you temporarily forget how it comes out.

Wuthering Heights

129 min., NR

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