Wuthering Heights is an incredible experience director Andrea Arnold having taken the Emily Brontë novel and turned it on its head in her typically nervy bold style. There's little dialogue it's shot using available natural light and like her previous film Fish Tank stars an unknown actor whose presence commands every scene.
There is moping on the moors in Wuthering Heights but the muddy meditative experience that has almost nothing in common with its predecessors. There's no romantically brooding Olivier or pillow-lipped Tom Hardy here; this is not an experience for teen girls to swoon over. As children Catherine and Heathcliff are odd playmates. Once Mr. Earnshaw dies and Catherine's older brother Hindley takes over the household Heathcliff's life changes drastically for the worse. He's physically and verbally abused and banished to the barn to sleep with the "other animals." It's clear that this is a brand-new nearly incomprehensible world for Healthcliff and it's impossible to not feel empathy for him especially during an aborted attempted at baptizing him. As a teen his relationship with Catherine is magical despite (or because?) how much he risks to just play in the mud with her. An ominous indicator of their lifelong relationship is that she doesn't grasp why her playmate isn't as free as she is to do what she wants. She's sorry that Heathcliff gets beaten for ditching work to play with her but that doesn't stop her from encouraging him. As children they romp like puppies with just a hint of their budding sexuality; they're pure selfish id.
In many ways neither of them outgrow this selfishness. Even when she's married and pregnant Catherine feels Heathcliff betrayed her by leaving. Heathcliff's ruthlessness in his pursuit of revenge is equally childish; we see him torturing dogs that mirrors the actions of Hindley's grubby-faced neglected child. Is it nature or nurture? Is Hindley's child learning by watching the adults around him or should we believe the natural tendency of children is this utterly careless cruelty? Whichever it is there's no doubt that Heathcliff's disavowal of the past and insistence of living in the present — "There's only now " he tells her — has nothing to do with Buddhist mindfulness but a total disregard for how his actions affect others. His initial plan included suicide but this seems much more interesting.
Howson's performance as an adult Heathcliff is remarkable. He's not a sympathetic character — no one is in this film. Although it's not clear whether or not Arnold was specifically looking to cast a person of color for the role of Heathcliff the fact that Howson is black adds an extra layer of complexity to the drama. In the book he's described in such a way that indicates at the very least his ethnic background isn't white but Arnold ups the ante by putting a racial epithet in Hindley's mouth. This drives home the idea of Heathcliff's outsider status; it makes his "otherness" visible.
There's something gentle in Heathcliff's face that belies the nearly sociopathic anger within. When he first seduces Catherine's sister-in-law Isabella as part of his revenge on Catherine it's erotic in a way that makes the viewer complicit in Isabella's eventual destruction. (This serves as an interesting foil to Fish Tank and its ethically troubling but arousing sex scenes with Michael Fassbender and Katie Jarvis.) As the adult Catherine Kaya Scodelario puts in a good performance. Her Catherine looks angelic but is all hard angles underneath those lacy flounces. She is the wild shrieking woman to Heathcliff's cold silence and when she is finally quiet it's only because she's succumbed to the furor of their lifelong struggle.
Throughout Wuthering Heights we are put in Heathcliff's shoes. We see Catherine through his eyes and we understand what it feels like to ride on a horse behind her with her hair whipping in our face and the warm flank under our fingers. We are immersed in this sensual experience of being Heathcliff thanks to the magic of Robbie Ryan's cinematography. (Ryan has worked as a cinematographer on all of Arnold's films including her Oscar-winning short Wasp.) The handheld camera work is intense and occasionally nauseating but its immediacy is crucial to the film. Using available light occasionally works against it as some scenes are so dark it's hard to tell what's actually happening.
Wuthering Heights gives rise to an internal debate. If it was edited down more with less lingering shots of bugs crawling across leaves or birds twinned in the sky as obvious metaphors for Heathcliff and Catherine it would be an entirely different experience. Would it be better maybe more enjoyable easier to sit through? Or is that beside the point? Andrea Arnold's talent lies in pushing the viewer past their normal boundaries of what's romantic or beautiful. In Arnold's world a mother and daughter dancing in a kitchen to "Life's a Bitch" by Nas is as loving and joyful as Heathcliff's frenzied attempts to unearth Catherine's coffin. You either decide you're all in or you're not.