Andrea Arnold’s Heathcliff is sort of a bastard. Not in the sense that nothing is known of his lineage — he’s just a downright selfish and obstinate bastard. Of course, in Emily Bronte’s novel, he ultimately becomes one, bitter and jaded by the loss of Catherine, the object of his refuted affections, and seeks revenge upon those whom he feels have wronged him. That mostly happens in the second half of the novel, however, in which Heathcliff manipulates the fates of the succeeding generation in a fairly scathing commentary on the ideas of monarchy, hegemony, propriety, and class. Most film adaptations omit that rather sizable chunk of the novel in favor of the star-crossed lovers plot that dominates the first half, and Arnold’s is no exception. What distinguishes her version of Wuthering Heights is the idea of The Other in the Hegelian sense of the term, of the master-slave dialectic; it is this intrinsic Otherness that motivates her Heathcliff, even going so far as to imply that his desire for Catherine was borne not out of romantic passion but rather a more simple, self-preserving instinct predicated upon her compassion for this acceded stray.
As such, it must be addressed immediately that this is the first production of Wuthering Heights to employ a black actor in the role of Heathcliff — in fact it employs two: Solomon Glave as the younger Heathcliff and James Howson as the older. Neither is given very much dialogue, which is another point of distinction for Arnold’s unique telling of this story. This is undoubtedly the most tactile adaptation of Wuthering Heights yet. The weather has always played a prominent role in the story, but never has it been so palpable. One feels the sheer force of the elements weighing down upon the characters; it is easy to understand why simply surviving could be considered such an accomplishment on the moors.
Arnold’s attention to the landscape, not as a distant backdrop but as a living organism within arm’s reach, brings to mind the work of Terrence Malick; much like the fields of Days of Heaven or the jungles of The Thin Red Line, the moors of Wuthering Heights communicate more about the characters’ priorities than the dialogue, illuminating their most basic motivations and concerns. Heathcliff is shown gently touching the flora, diligently digging the earth, and stolidly breaking stone, more in communion with the ground below and the sky above than with the humans circumjacent to him.
Heathcliff is first shown compassion when Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) takes him into his home, but it is of the Christian “Now I can make you one of my own” variety. He is treated like an animal — and explicitly called as much — by the rest of the Earnshaws, save for Catherine (Shannon Beer, and later Kaya Scodelario), who herself seems to be an outsider among her family. Whereas everyone else tries to “civilize” Heathcliff, Catherine instead tries to understand and to relate with him. She appeals to his senses, teaching him the different birds by the touch of their feathers. They go horseback riding together, Heathcliff rapturously inhaling the scent of her billowing hair and luxuriating in the gentle rocking of their bodies against one another. They share their first — and most — intimate moment pinning one another down in the mud.
Discounting these fleeting moments, however, Heathcliff is staunchly entrenched as The Other. Even before Mr. Earnshaw dies and his eldest son Hindley (Lee Shaw) condemns Heathcliff to the stables, Heathcliff spends much of his time lurking around corners and peering through windows. Much of the film is shot through small openings or vantages otherwise obstructed — holes in the wall, doors left ajar, filthy windows, overgrown brush — giving one the feeling of a voyeur, spying upon a world of which one is not a part.
It is in fact an explicitly voyeuristic act perpetrated by Heathcliff and Catherine which will ultimately drive them apart. Gawking through the windows of the nearby Linton estate, curious of how the other half lives, Heathcliff and Catherine are spotted by the Lintons who, startled, release their dogs upon them. Catherine’s foot is badly bitten, and the Lintons, realizing that she is just a girl, take her in to care for her. Heathcliff, however, is sent away for his crude and vulgar demeanor, an attribute they claim of his having been an orphan from the streets of Liverpool.
This interaction highlights what is perhaps Heathcliff’s defining trait and greatest flaw: that of his priggish adherence to the label of The Other, which he wears as a foolish, spiteful, and wholly misguided point of pride. This is where the issue of Heathcliff’s race becomes pertinent, and it is worth reiterating the fact that the Lintons ascribe him the status of The Other based upon his actions and not his appearance. Hindley, however, refers to Heathcliff as “nigger” several times throughout the film; to wit, even Catherine spits on Heathcliff when she first sees him. As such, Heathcliff believes that as long as he is dark skinned, he will always be viewed as a savage, as unclean; he resists his baptism when he is first welcomed into Mr. Earnshaw’s home, and even insists “I like being dirty” when it is suggested he bathe for company. To Heathcliff, his own blackness is an irreversible stain on his character, making any attempts at gentility not only futile but a sign of weakness and of subservience.
When Catherine marries Edgar Linton (James Northcote), Heathcliff — at least in Arnold’s telling of the story — is maddened less by the loss of a potential lover than by the loss of compassion. He views Catherine’s acceptance of marriage as a concession to the hierarchical system of caste and manners of which he is an outsider and to which he professes no fealty. Arnold even allows Catherine some concordant misgivings of her own; “He’s handsome, cheerful, and rich — and he loves me,” she asserts, before doubling back and confiding, “Wherever souls live, I feel I’m wrong.”
Heathcliff, rather than confronting Catherine, runs away. When he returns several years later, he is in possession of some degree of wealth — the source of which is undisclosed — which he uses to secure room and board for a year in the Earnshaw house, during which time he will reinstate himself in Catherine’s life. This is, unfortunately, where Arnold starts to lose her grip on the story, and the final act doesn’t quite gel. Arnold is clearly trying to develop a conflict between Heathcliff’s passion for Catherine and his vengeful greed, but she tilts the scales too much in favor of the latter to keep the audience emotionally invested. Her Heathcliff simply has too few redeeming characteristics for us to want to see him succeed; he is selfish, insensitive, petulant, and manipulative.
In fact, most of our sympathies end up with Isabella (Nichola Burley), Catherine’s sister-in-law whose attraction to Heathcliff makes her an unfortunate pawn in his conquest for Catherine’s affections. Burley’s may actually be the film’s strongest performance; Isabella’s is certainly the most fully realized emotional arc, even as it all unfolds within the film’s final act. It is through Heathcliff’s treatment of her that we are able to more clearly understand his motives with Catherine. The film ends by revisiting an earlier scene of Heathcliff and Catherine frolicking, in which Heathcliff eventually pins her down to the ground; what had earlier come across as playful now feels more like an act of dominance. Heathcliff’s steady gaze, which had originally seemed intimate and loving, now reads as self satisfaction, pleased at having found someone with whom he can reverse the roles of master and slave.
Arnold deserves plaudits for intent — I rather like this interpretation of Heathcliff, even if it does compromise the film’s ability to engage the viewer — and for technical execution. Robbie Ryan, who has also worked on Arnold’s Red Road and Fish Tank, deserves extra special mention for the film’s poetic and evocative cinematography. His unfussy compositions, smooth rack focuses across the vast moors, and control of atmosphere and light give the film a gravity that the script cannot. I still admire Arnold’s perspective and her control of mood, but ultimately Wuthering Heights suffers from the same lack of narrative momentum and thematic focus that, for me at least, crippled Arnold’s previous film Fish Tank. That film was, puzzlingly, almost universally adored for its stark depiction of the British lower class; Wuthering Heights at least has a little more to say, even if it struggles to get it all out.