WUTHERING HEIGHTS (MA)
Stars: Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer, James Howson, Kaya Scodelario, Lee Shaw
Director: Andrea Arnold
It's readily apparent what British filmmaker Andrea Arnold is attempting with her revisionist take on Wuthering Heights. So often a work of period desire, here Emily Bronte's classic 1847 novel is recast as a stern and primal work defined by the force of the elements and cruel obsession. There's not even a hint of Kate Bush's lush hit here.
Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan shot the film in a boxy 4:3 ratio, so the desolate Yorkshire moors suggest there's no way out. When farm owner Mr Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) brings home the young orphan who will be forcibly christened Heathcliff, there's but a speck of light - or hope - in the distance as they tramp through the rain towards home.
The original text describes the boy as dark-skinned, and Arnold furthers the character's sense of exclusion by casting black actors (starting with Glave) as Heathcliff. He's racially abused and then beaten by Earnshaw's son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), but becomes entwined with Earnshaw's teenage daughter, Cathy (Beer), and the movie's best scenes channel (without words) the bond that is forged between them.
Arnold's outstanding last film, Fish Tank (2009), excelled at expressing the complex emotions driving a contemporary Essex teen towards possibly calamitous change. But in stripping Wuthering Heights down to its barest outline - ''There's only now,'' the grown Heathcliff (Howson) tells Cathy (Scodelario) - Arnold has removed a degree of necessary emotional texture. Heathcliff is not just brooding, he's close to unreadable.
The camera picks up innumerable details, from the shadows thrown up by flickering candles to the bugs that flit briefly around the characters; with its numerous close-ups, the film does for insects what Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line did for lizards. But Arnold's quest for realism reduces the tale to a recognisable but skeletal form - it's difficult to discern just where Heathcliff and Cathy's thwarted love begins.
Like most screen versions, including William Wyler's 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier, this Wuthering Heights sticks to the first half of the book, but perhaps the opening quarter would have been better. The reunited adult Cathy and Heathcliff have nothing to exhibit but despairing loss, and the successive tragic endings suggest Arnold doesn't quite know how to conclude her initially arresting but ultimately flawed interpretation of romantic compulsion.