Emily Bronte’s classic novel has been converted to film five times since 1992. This time, irector Andrea Arnold presents us with the hand-held camera dynamic, the long, lingering silences featuring landscape scenes of windy moors and wildlife in the miry bogs. Rain, lots of rain. Dialogue is sometimes so brief and clipped and accented that we wonder what we missed, because often there’s no relational context.
We do pick up, after a while, that it’s the horse-and-buggy era, and a working-class farm family picks up a stray boy in the town square and invites him to stay. Of course, they expect him to be a servant. And in this version, Heathcliff is also black, which adds racial overtones not present in the novel, which was more concerned with class division. In either case, the smoldering romance that develops between the young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and the youngest sibling, Catherine (Shannon Beer) is, of course, racy at several levels: they are too young, they are of different social classes, and here, of course, they are of different racial ethnic backgrounds. The added dynamic allows Catherine to come to Heathcliff’s rescue when he is being particularly ill-treated by her dad or older brother, but he’s still a slave, and they still beat him when they deem it necessary. When Catherine’s dad dies suddenly, the overtly racist older brother is now lord of the manor, and besides marrying quickly to claim his place as the patriarch, he continues to make life so miserable for Heathcliff that he just runs away.
Fast forward a few years. Heathcliff (now played, as an adult, by James Howson) returns, this time dressed as a gentleman, and obviously fairly prosperous. He expects to re-enact his affection for Catherine, but alas, she has married now, has moved to a neighboring manor, and is expecting a child, and her husband, though something of a milquetoast, is none too happy to be entertaining his young wife’s childhood sweetheart. Heathcliff, seeing his first plan for restoration thwarted, decides on particular kinds of revenge instead. He hangs around Catherine enough to tweak her dissatisfaction with her current situation, and invoke her original romantic stirrings. He contracts with her dastardly older brother, now widowed and dissolute, to live at the old house as a boarder, and even serves as his lender, eventually using the deep indebtedness to take ownership of the land where he formerly was a slave. Yes, revenge is a dish served cold. He even takes Catherine’s sister-in-law, Isabella, as a paramour, not because he loves Isabella, but he enjoys making Catherine jealous and watching her suffer over him, because he continues to suffer over her.
Well, that doesn’t leave us viewers much to rejoice in, does it? We get the feeling this isn’t going to end well for anybody, and it doesn’t. In addition, we are off-put by the garbled dialogue, the stifling silences that are supposed to be dignified but actually feel more stultifying, and the treatment of animals that was probably historically accurate but strikes us city folk as rather stark and unsentimental, bumping up against cruelty and abuse. This version of “Wuthering Heights” may indeed gain some recognition for cinematography, but that would hardly be worth the time invested in viewing the rest of it.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.