Too often, great works of literature arrive on screen weighed down by their reputations. Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights" is a wild emanation of Victorian genius half-tamed by time and term papers; Andrea Arnold's new film adaptation is an admirable, frustrating attempt to restore its raw, earthy passion.
Abandoning the lush romanticism of most earlier versions, Arnold's "Heights," with the first black Heathcliff (played by two actors), emphasizes mud, misery and savage, inarticulate feelings.
Shot with a drab, harsh palette that suits the weather and the mood of deprivation, the movie intersperses vertiginous Yorkshire vistas with microscopic examinations of local flora and fauna. Close-ups of moths, beetles, lichen and weeds provide a background for a Darwinian study of lust and domination.
We first encounter a mature Heathcliff (James Howson) doing violence to himself, beating head against a wall in a fit of rage and despair; we quickly perceive that his earlier life was no less brutal.
In this foreshortened telling, young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) arrives at the Earnshaw home in the midst of a torrential downpour, one of several storms that punctuate the narrative. The love of his life, Cathy (Shannon Beer), welcomes him by spitting in his face, and he greets his new family with growls and curses. Mr. Earnshaw, the patriarch (Paul Hilton), is stern but compassionate, though his severe discipline is better than the vengeful sadism of his son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), who takes over the household after the old man dies.
Harsh natural and domestic circumstances provide fertile ground for the ardor that blossoms between Heathcliff and Cathy. They are more attuned than their kin or the neighbors to the rhythms of life and death. Arnold depicts their sometimes rough intimacy as a primordial state of hunger, deeper than language, reason or even sexual desire.
The film, like the hearts of its protagonists, continues to dwell in a state of unruly, unbuttoned intensity. Or at least it tries. The jump cuts, off-kilter angles and hurtling hand-held camerawork and the guttural stammerings of the actors and ambient muck of the design, meant to create a sense of immediacy, curiously enough, have the opposite effect. As a result, the impact -- the grandeur, the art -- of "Wuthering Heights" is diminished.
Rating: Not rated
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer
Director: Andrea Arnold
Running time: 2 hours,