No score, sparse dialogue and a black lead – Brontë purists may take exception, but Maureen Coleman loves it
I was expecting not to like it. As a self-confessed Brontë-phile, who has spent many weekends wandering the wild and windy Yorkshire moors, I read each review of Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights with a growing sense of frustration. Stripped back, pared down, sparse and spiky dialogue... I feared Emily Brontë would be spinning in her grave.
While Jane Eyre has traditionally translated well onto the big screen, movie-makers have found Wuthering Heights a more challenging prospect. Key to the story is the correct casting of its two main protagonists, Cathy and Heathcliff, and this is where several adaptations have fallen short, from the too-handsome Laurence Olivier in the 1939 Hollywood version to Juliette Binoche's French-sounding Cathy in the 1992 film.
Arnold has been courageous in her casting, choosing, for the first time, a black actor to play the role of Heathcliff. Cynics could say this is a ploy to stir up controversy, but Arnold was so determined to find her 'dark-skinned gypsy boy', she even scoured Romany camps.
In the novel, Brontë's anti-hero is referred to as a 'little Lascar' – a person of South Asian descent – and Nelly Dean, encouraging the young boy to be proud of his roots, suggests that his father might have been Emperor of China and his mother an Indian queen.
Even Charlotte Brontë, Emily's sister, described him, in a letter to her publisher, as 'a black gipsy-cub'. Whatever his origins, it's safe to deduct that he was a foreigner in more ways than one, an outsider, the 'cuckoo in the nest'. Arnold should be commended for her bold move.
In her no-frills adaptation, captured on a hand-held camera, Heathcliff is first portrayed in childhood by Solomon Glave and later, as an adult by unknown actor, James Howson. Rescued by Mr Earnshaw from the streets of Liverpool, he is brought home to a Yorkshire farmhouse on the bleak and desolate moors.
It is here he forges an all-consuming, obsessive bond with his step-sister Cathy (played first by Shannon Beer and then by Skins star, Kaya Scoledario). The pair co-exist in their own little world, escaping to the safety of the savage moors. Beer is a revelation as the young Cathy, wilful and unkempt, happiest when rolling in the mud with her soulmate.
Yes, dialogue is rationed – which borders on the sacrilegious for Brontë purists – but sometimes silence speaks louder than words. There are plenty of stolen glances, deep, intense stares and a particularly poignant moment, when Cathy tends to Heathcliff's wounds, after another brutal beating from his step-brother, Hindley.
Where this adaptation fails to deliver, however, is in the chemistry – or the lack thereof between the adult leads. I would have liked to see more passion between the two, although the death bed scene is tenderly portrayed and brings a tear to this reviewer's eyes. Again, dialogue is superfluous, as the pair cling helplessly to each other.
What I found most exciting about Arnold's adaptation is how she puts nature and the elements centre-stage. In Brontë's master-piece the moors aren't just a physical backdrop for the story, but a metaphor for Cathy and Heathcliff's relationship: wild, untamed, hostile.
This is the first time a director has made nature as much the star of the show as the main characters themselves, and Arnold does this beautifully. There's no soundtrack to the film, save the blustery wind, barking dogs and birdsong, and we're given countless close-up shots of dung beetles, purple gorse, lapwings circling overhead, butterflies fluttering in the breeze. Never have t'moors looked more enticing.
Brontë devotees should tread carefully with this version. Not to give away the ending, Arnold chooses a most surprising denouement, and fails to explore the relationships of the second generation or Heathcliff's subsequent deterioration and self-destruction.
And she deploys shock tactics too that might have purists cringing in their seats. 'He's not my brother, he's a nigger,' Hindley (Lee Shaw) shouts about Heathcliff; while the latter screams 'F*ck you all, you c**ts!' to the residents of Thrushcross Grange. We all know Heathcliff digs up his beloved's remains, but I don't think Emily Brontë ever implied necrophilia.
Then there's the omission of so many key speeches. There are no passionate declarations from Cathy: 'Nelly, I am Heathcliff', or heart-rending utterances from the man himself: 'Be with me always, take any form, drive me mad, only do not leave me in this abyss where I cannot find you!'
What Arnold gives us is bleak and gritty. This is not a romanticised offering of the greatest love story ever told. It's as dark as Heathcliff's skin, as black as his eyes, as tortured as his soul. If Emily Brontë were around today, this might have been the film that she would make, and that's the greatest compliment one could pay Andrea Arnold.
Wuthering Heights runs in Queen's Film Theatre from November 18 – 30. For a chance to win a trip to the beautiful Bronte country in West Yorkshire, visit http://www.queensfilmtheatre.com/films/wutheringheights/.