Adapted fearlessly from Emily Bronte’s classic tale of illicit love, Andrea Arnold’s work goes above and beyond the realm of capturing the bleakness of the Yorkshire Moors. Shaky shots of nature’s most cruel abound and onslaught on one of the finer pleasures in life; love.
From the outset, it becomes clear that this is an adaptation of extremes, the wildness, animalistic and unrestrained instincts of the young Cathy and Heathcliff are almost uncomfortable in places while remaining touching and true to the feral young daughter of Earnshaw and rescued foundling Heathcliff’s original story.
Beware those who cannot cope with close shots of death of the small furry kind as puppies are left hanging, animals spines broken by hand and for those a little squeamish, step back from Cathy’s licking of Heathcliff’s wounds after he has been whipped. It is an extraordinary scene that’s power is the illustration of the almost instantaneous and natural bond of the two crossed lovers. As children their growing love and unquestioning urges in the coming of age shows no boundaries of the civilised kind outside the beautifully grey moors and melodramatic climate.
Nature, particularly the weather, dominates this film, the wind and rain envelops you as you sit watching and the passion unfolds mainly through inaction and atmosphere. Beautiful in my opinion but for some might be a hard task to sit through for two hours.
Alongside the severity and simple shots of nature is the unrestrained sexualisation of Heathcliff’s physical responses to Cathy’s close proximity, often centred around their hair, like animals seeking out pheromones, he buries his head in her scent and she claws at his own, letting it go, freeing him as she does with her collection of bird’s feathers.
Working with this is the harshness of language used that some could say sits clumsily in what most would see as period drama, however it does work in that the shock of the modern words would reflect the kind of language Heathcliff would have been partied to through insults and his own responses of the time. I think it worked although there were definitely some uncomfortable fidgets and a couple of people left in a flurry of coats and bags at the alarm of the word ‘cunt’, it seems ‘nigger’ doesn't hold the same power which leads on to the controversial casting of Heathcliff as a mixed race man.
For me, this made absolute sense as in the novel, his identity is often heavily implied as racially ambiguous and different from those around him, perhaps more traditionally those have seen him as of Romany descent, the foundling for this adaptation from the streets of Liverpool sat fine with the growing influx of slaves and his branding on undressing.
The second half of the film wasn’t as affecting as the story of the two characters’ childhood. The transition from child to man for Heathcliff (James Howson) was fine, silent, brooding passion with an edge of temper and perhaps instability. Cathy, however, in her casting as an adult was lacking in passion and spirit and physically didn’t seem to work. I actually think the two young actors Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, could have continued in the second half with some subtle change in costume and manner, especially as surrounding characters like Hindley and Nelly remained the same.
Despite this, her taunting of Heathcliff was infuriating and her eventual demise had impact, again in more scenes of unrestrained and almost taboo responses as Heathcliff kisses her dead body and appears to climax in his grief and unconsummated passion.
Left without his love and declaring his wish she wakes in agony on the other side, Heathcliff’s anger is vent on his newly acquired young wife and ends with his visions of Cathy’s ghost. Of course anyone that knows the book, this is barely half way through the novel as the story almost repeats the illicit love through the next generation showing the spiritual balance is not put in place and the love is borne again to end in tragedy. However, no film seems to go beyond this point.
Andrea Arnold has done a great job, for me the novel was always centred around nature and this was at the forefront of the film, not always pretty but definitely capturing. My only two criticisms are the casting of the adult Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) and the end credit music from (urgh) Mumford and Sons, just seemed a rude interruption to the mystery and atmosphere of the film.
It is an adaptation for the more traditional Bronte fans but could also pull in new interest, the beauty of this literature is how the stories can fit into a more modern perspective while left firmly in a past of more mystery and accepted cruelty. It remains a timeless tale of impossible and inescapable passion, the consequences of ignoring always being haunted. I loved it.