Director Andrea Arnold ("Fish Tank") adapts and directs her take on Emily Bronte’s classic novel "Wuthering Heights" and gives it an interesting, frustrating, sometimes icky, but ultimately ingratiating take.
Using a minimalistic approach, Arnold retells the story told numerous times on film in the past, most notably by William Wyler in the glossy 1939 Hollywood version (that made a star of Laurence Olivier) and, more recently, on British television with rising star Tom Hardy in the lead. Set in the remote Yorkshire highlands, the film begins when Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), owner of a modest farm called Wuthering Heights, takes in a teenage urchin named Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and makes him a part of his family, despite their poverty. Older son Hindley (Lee Shaw) doesn’t take too kindly to Heathcliff, while Cathy (Shannon Beer) instantly fancies him. Even though he doesn’t speak much, the two become friends and spend days going round about the countryside. But a past filled with abuse has made Heathcliff skittish and this causes problems for his life there - especially when he is frequently beat up by Hindley.
As the story goes, Cathy eventually gets caught up with a rich family named the Lintons and she falls for their son Edgar (Jonathan Powell). With the Lintons, Cathy learns the ways of the gentry, which separates her from Heathcliff and strains their relationship. It gets worse when Mr. Earnshaw dies and Hindley returns from school (with girlfriend in tow) and takes over; putting Heathcliff in the barn where he feels he belongs.
About an hour or more into the film, Heathcliff and Cathy are switched out with older actors (James Howson and Kaya Sodelario), as is Edgar (played by James Northcote). The problem with this switcheroo is that we’ve become so invested in the actors playing the younger versions of the characters that the new actors feel like intruders. Add to that the fact that these romantic leads become remarkably unlikeable and you have a movie that becomes instantly irritating because you don’t care what happens to either one of them. Cathy is rude, petulant, and childish, while Heathcliff has become something of a brute.
The ick factor is threefold: one when the two are younger and there is a sexually charged scene when they are playing in the dirt. It’s a telling moment, but as the kids were on the younger teen side it just become uncomfortable. Next, when Heathcliff shows his anger upon his return many years later, he does so by hanging a live puppy on a fence post. While I’m sure PETA was on set, this incident occurs twice and it was disturbing to watch the puppy squirm and wiggle while hanging from his neck. Yuck. Lastly, there is a sex scene that I wasn’t even sure was happening until it was and then I was grossed out. I can’t imagine this was in the book. And its inclusion seemed a bit artsy fartsy pretentious to me. Not to mention unnecessary.
At two hours and eight minutes, "Wuthering Heights" is a bit of a struggle to get through. While I can appreciate the cinematography by Robbie Ryan BSC and how Arnold handled the actors - many of whom had never even acted before (Beer and Glave are both terrific), ultimately it’s a story for which I lost any feeling. The entire affair is dirty, wet and cold so in many ways, it’s just unpleasant. If I had felt for these characters, it wouldn’t have mattered. But ultimately I didn’t and thus, I wouldn’t recommend spending time getting to know them only to have them turn out to be jerks.