I am Heathcliff. Did I actually borrow that quote recently to describe myself, when getting nostalgic with an old friend? Yeah, I guess I did. It demonstrates just how deeply ingrained the 1939 classic “Wuthering Heights”, starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Catherine, is in my being. I forgot that line was even in the film. It’s been years since I’ve seen that classic William Wyler motion picture. But it’s always resonated with me. It may be the greatest love story ever. So, I popped in the DVD of the latest version of “Wuthering Heights” with a degree of trepidation. Would it hold up to my adoration for the original classic? I need not have worried. This “Wuthering Heights” is astonishing. It’s visceral. It’s uncompromising. It’s unremittingly bleak. And all for the better. No glossy Hollywood treatment for this remake. It’s been filmed using handheld cameras and brandishes amateur actors. The cold wind of the moors is represented so incredibly that it actually becomes a character. There’s vicious cruelty and harsh landscapes. And, of course, it takes the bold step of casting black actors as Heathcliff(Solomon Glave as a youth and James Howson as the adult version). It’s exciting to be newly introduced to a director, and Andrea Arnold is now fully on my radar. I’ll be backtracking soon to experience her two previous features. And in 2005 she even won an Oscar for a 26-minute live action short(“Wasp”).
You know the story, right? Young vagabond Heathcliff(Mr. Glave)is taken off the streets by Mr. Earnshaw(Paul Hilton)and put to work on his North Yorkshire family farm. Heathcliff quickly becomes close with his youthful daughter Catherine Earnshaw(Shannon Beer), and before long they are inseparable friends. There’s always the hint, of course, of a budding romance—and their playfulness and furtive glancing gets more intense as time goes by. On the other hand, Cathy’s brother Hindley Earnshaw(Lee Shaw)seems to despise Heathcliff—and treats him cruelly at every turn. When Mr. Earnshaw suddenly passes on, this harsh treatment by Hindley increases—and obviously there is also a racial element here that is not present in the other screen versions. One day, while playing on the wind-whipped moors, Cathy is injured by a dog when she trespasses with Heathcliff on the Linton estate. Cathy is quickly tended to by the Lintons, and Heathcliff is roundly shunned. The Lintons are wealthy, and not only do they let young Catherine stay for a period to recuperate, but after a while Edgar Linton(first Jonathon Powell, then James Northcote)proposes to her as she matures into a beautiful, sophisticated woman(Ms. Beer, then eventually the lovely Kaya Scodelario). Torn between her love for Heathcliff and the desire to improve upon her modest status with a well-to-do family—Cathy finally accepts Linton’s advances. Heartbroken and dejected, Heathcliff sets out on his own—with the intention of finding fortune, and then returning to exact his revenge.
I’ve never read the “Wuthering Heights” novel from Emily Bronte, but I don’t believe I’ve ever wanted to more. This stirring film version has nearly matched my adoring memory of the first movie. It’s deeply haunted me. And the casting of a person of color as Heathcliff is a masterstroke. It enriches the already profound proceedings and works like gangbusters. Ms. Scodelario is apparently the most experienced of the young cast—and it sort of shows. But that’s not a debit, as all of the performers are stunningly naturalistic via the direction of Ms. Arnold—plus there is sparse dialouge, especially in the film’s first half. And is Howson’s Heathcliff doing what I think he’s doing in his final scene with the tragic Cathy? It’s left somewhat ambiguous—and that makes it all the more intriguing. The scene is a WOW. There are depictions of animal cruelty in this film that are disturbing, but logical. And the feel of the piece is dirty and grimy and earthy. Again, this is not your grandma’s “Wuthering Heights”. I wish I had seen it in time for last year’s Top Ten. There’s always at least one—and this is definitely it. The 2012 release of “Wuthering Heights” reached into me and grabbed my soul. It’s a stunner. I am still unable to shake it. Grade: A