The most believably rendered character in Emily Brontë’s only novel is the Yorkshire highlands, the largely inhospitable and sparsely settled region in which the central love rectangle festers. The story concerns exchanges of power and bodily fluids, the ultimate agents of sociopolitical alchemy, across three generations and two neighboring estates: a modest manor called Thrushcross Grange owned by landed gentry, and the yeoman’s farm of the title. But the bold winds, soupy fog, and muddy frost of the moors that separate the two properties are a classless, purgatorial gutter. The land’s ferality, its lucid acceptance of life and death and rest and agitation in equal measure, exacts an unbecoming frankness upon civilized interlopers, whatever their wealth or education. Angered gusts scream across the hills; scattered grouse skeletons offer impromptu lessons in natural selection. Both God and the Royal Family seem like distant delusions hardly worth arranging one’s nasty little life around. The book’s moral dilemma concerns, in one respect, an adolescent choice between savagery (intuition) and culture (reason), but the two options are not equally weighted. Inhabitants of the moors need not select elemental chaos; they either capitulate to it or struggle against its ubiquity.
Brontë’s prose is lively and descriptive, but, curiously, not often sensual when describing the environment of her story. Avoiding ground-level naturalism and haptic details, she broadly anthropomorphizes the land’s unlawfulness, drawing a smooth line from the alluring mystery of the highlands to that of her Byronic hero, the gypsy waif Heathcliff. In short, Brontë shovels a lot of dirt that she refuses to wallow in, which has practically predestined Wuthering Heights for an eventual, paganly pornographic revision, and at its most successful, this is the noble obligation that Andrea Arnold’s film adaptation fulfills. Dispensing with much of the novel’s “tell-don’t-show” verbiage, including a tedious framing device by which a servant’s vernacular flashback offered the origins of Heathcliff and Cathy’s mutually destructive affair, Arnold teases out the harsh, tactile beauty of the narrative’s brutal environmental philosophy. The pithy, seasick camera angles and blurred, naturally lit rooms of Arnold’s first two features have been carried over and offered a newly diegetic urgency. By grafting the bombastic animalism of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, including a few anachronistic swear words, like “cunt,” onto Brontë’s outline, the director most of all concretizes Wuthering Heights’s fierce and gritty, if hitherto sublimated, sexuality.
The product is unmercifully filthy; even the dumbly “transitional” cloud shots appear putrefied and frozen over. Chopping through the story like a teenager bored with the novel’s circumlocution, Arnold pares down everything in the name of corporeal directness, most of all plot: In the movie’s dark and wind-whipped opening, the beastly gypsy orphan is adopted into the Earnshaw farm by its patriarch; two scenes later, the newly christened Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) has already befriended Earnshaw’s chubby, wayward daughter, Catherine (Shannon Beer). The 4:3 aspect ratio is further suggestive of abridgement, though it also recalls the tall, narrow landscapes of German romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich; his marshmallow-y fog banks and pointy-haired wanderers are an obvious visual reference.
For another 30 minutes, Arnold follows the two proto-lovers around in jagged lines as they usher themselves into puberty, extrapolating appropriately endless sensory details from a measly sentence in the novel. Heathcliff and Cathy sort through bird feathers, scavenge the desolate hills past dark (and get spanked for it), and in one uncharacteristically on-the-nose sequence lubricate their bodily curiosities with mud. Heathcliff’s cragged oneness with the surrounding hills meanwhile achieves a poetic brusqueness; Cathy’s attraction to it has Freudian overtones, but more importantly primeval ones, as though she were being invited to take part in an ignoble but prototypical transaction. (Arnold underscores this with a possibly unnecessary scene wherein Heathcliff rejects a baptism while Cathy stands in delighted awe of how unsettled her companion is by ritual.)
In whittling down Brontë’s romance to its most earthly aspects, Arnold stylizes herself into an unavoidable corner. The dreamy wordlessness becomes less plausible as the characters age and change, actions that necessitate expository dialogue of which the film’s thick, sweaty tone is clearly scornful. Cathy’s injury at Thrushcross Grange, for example, and her subsequent taste of la dolce vita in convalescence are revealed in poorly written asides that serve as mere triggers for Heathcliff’s blind rage. Scenes wherein we learn of Cathy’s marriage to the middle-class scion Edgar Linton (James Northcote), her father’s death, and Heathcliff’s resultant self-exile from the Earnshaw farm are emotionally vacant, the mere turning of narrative wheels. The virtuous anti-intellectualism of the movie’s first half terminally sags the second, primarily because Arnold doesn’t allow Cathy to express the painful bifurcation of her adult affections with Brontë’s shocking eloquence. (When Edgar demands that she choose between himself and Heathcliff, she whimpers pitifully.)
Arnold is similarly reluctant to turn Heathcliff (played as an adult by James Howson) into the dashingly sadistic scheme-meister he becomes in the novel. Her brutish, brooding interpretation of his personality, however, slyly updates Brontë’s notions of the beautiful and the sublime for modernly male sensibilities. This Heathcliff understands love as a kind of endurance not only through separation, but also through self-debasing and taboo-ravaging trials. When he seduces Edgar Linton’s sister (Nichola Burley), gobs of foreign saliva cleave to his tanned cheeks, an erotic demystification encapsulating his disappointment—and possible repulsion toward the marriage for money he orchestrates with the act. And when the opportunity presents itself, he proves his love to Cathy’s candle-surrounded corpse with an enticingly frank transgression. These actions, more so than his ownership of both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights in the film’s epilogue, solidify his spiritual affinity with the highlands: He openly revels in all that is revolting and attractive about life in the most material sense of the word.