Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights has long been at the forefront of British literature. Numerous film and television adaptations have been made, with differing reactions from the public – but one thing they all have in common is that no one version has unanimously been considered the quintessential adaptation. The 2011 film of Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) is supposedly very like the original work, although it misses out a large chunk of the book during which Cathy’s daughter becomes an adult in her own right.
The story of Wuthering Heights, as many people will know, begins when Mr. Earnshaw brings home a child he child he found wandering the streets and gives him a home as a good Christian should. In this film, the boy, given the name of Healthcliff is of African descent. He soon becomes firm friends with Cathy, the daughter of the house and develops an obsession with her that continues even after it is announced that she is to marry a neighbour’s son, Edgar Linton. Heathcliff leaves, only to return several years later having made his fortune and wanting to reclaim Cathy who is now married. His return has a profound effect on Cathy’s health.
Anybody who knows the story of Wuthering Heights will be expecting a grim, dark tale of unrequited love, obsession and deep unhappiness. That is exactly what this film provides, and more. The Earnshaw’s farmhouse is basic and earthy, with few home comforts. The weather is constantly atrocious, pouring down with rain on an almost constant basis. The only time it doesn’t rain is when the action moves to the Lintons’ home, which is much wealthier – then the weather is oddly always sunny!
There are two sets of actors portraying Cathy and Heathcliff as children and then adults. The children, played by Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, are infinitely better than the adults, played by James Howson and Kaya Scodelario. Young Cathy is suitably precocious, yet intense, and young Heathcliff clearly has a great deal of anger bubbling under the surface. Their older versions are insipid in comparison. Cathy comes across as being selfish and pointless and the older Heathcliff’s acting is wooden. It doesn’t help that neither look remotely like their younger versions.
As can be expected, there aren’t many other noticeable roles. Nelly, who narrates the original Bronte book, appears regularly, but says little. Cathy’s brother, Hindley, is an obnoxious yob who could have walked off the set of Emmerdale Farm. From the point of view of inspiring hatred, actor Lee Shaw does a good job. However, the creepiest character is probably Hindley’s son, Hareton, played by Michael Hughes, who barely speaks, but whose silent menace is scarier than his father’s aggression.
The film has been criticised in some quarters, in reviews on imdb.com for example, for its attention to detail towards the less pleasant aspects of daily life at the time the story is set. Heathcliff slits a sheep’s throat and the audience is forced to watch its life ebb away. On at least two occasions, dogs are hung up by the neck and left to die. Animal cruelty may not actually have been involved, but it certainly looks realistic. There is also a very sensual side to the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff, which culminates in apparent necrophilia. It is unpleasant to watch and some may find it disturbing. Whether Andrea Arnold should be praised or slated for this comes down to personal opinion.
It is hard to fit a book the length of Wuthering Heights into a two hour film, so it is perhaps no surprise that so much of the story is missing. However, for those who know the original story, it will be frustrating and it does feel as though the film is not quite complete. When the fact that Cathy and Heathcliff’s adult relationship is not particularly well acted or realistic is added in, the ending falls even flatter.
In all, fans of the book will want to watch this film and make their own judgement. However, it is unlikely to encourage newcomers to the story to read the book because it is just too depressing and none of the characters are remotely likeable. It may be true to the book, but the fact that the adult characters are so wooden and selfish makes it very hard to find much that is worth praising in this version of Wuthering Heights.