Does the world need another screen adaptation of Emily Brontë classic 1846 novel, Wuthering Heights? Arguably no. But writer-director Andrea Arnold's effort is no mere run-of-the-mill adaptation. It's a bold, unique, gorgeously made film that manages to be at once thoroughly contemporary and elegantly throwback. It's a breath of fresh, moist English air in a narrative that typically gets the staid, overly corseted Merchant Ivory treatment.
Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) applies her unique aesthetic vision to the source material, even while she remains relatively faithful to book's plot. The story, a bleak Gothic romance set against the windswept, turbulent moors of North Yorkshire, England, concerns the star-crossed romance between Heathcliff and Catherine ("Cathy"). The film opens when Heathcliff—a mysterious boy whose backstory is never told—is taken in by Mr. Earnshaw, a Yorkshire farmer and father to a short-tempered son (Hindley) and a free-spirited daughter (Cathy). Soon Heathcliff and Cathy forge an intimate friendship that becomes something more as they grow up together, playing in the muddy, craggy, dramatic landscapes of the moors. Things get complicated for Heathcliff and Cathy as the expectations of class and culture intrude on the dreamscape of innocent young love. As they grow into adulthood they experience the painful ramifications of the dark side (jealousy, passion, bitterness) of their ill-fated love.
Though Arnold's film (in limited theaters) doesn't encompass the full narrative timeline of the book, it does cover much of the central drama surrounding Heathcliff and Cathy, without ever feeling rushed, thin or unsatisfying. English teachers and literary purists may object to the film's unorthodox aesthetic choices—among them, a shocking, Malick-esque scarcity of dialogue—but the beauty of cinema is that so much can be communicated through moving images: the evocative facial gestures and physicality of a good actor's performance; the quiet beauty of the golden autumn light playing off of a horse's auburn mane; the unsympathetic landscapes and brutal weather literally pounding in sheets of wind and rain on the rickety walls of an aging homestead.
Interestingly, Arnold's eye seems almost more taken with these sorts of details (place, context, nature, visceral observance) than with things like plot exposition and character development. The film achieves that rare, tactile place where—through the stunning cinematography of Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank)—one can almost feel the wetness of the fog, fields and mud, or the softness of feathers and fur. The prevalence of sweeping vistas, all manner of weather (snow, sun, rain) and an impressive sampling of the animal kingdom (dogs, bugs, rabbits, birds, horses, etc.) all contribute to the unique tenor of this version of Wuthering Heights. It's a film where the romantic ambience and "love can be destructive" themes of the book are rendered visually, through images of a world that is at once magical, renewing, and transcendent and foreboding, desolate and uncaring. Arnold's decision to shoot in 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 16:9 also highlights this detail-oriented focus on portraiture and "human's eye view" composition, where vertical lines (big sky, birds, trees) are just as important as horizons and vistas.