Taking her tone from the sensuality of nature and the rawness of the Yorkshire moors, British director Andrea Arnold charges straight for the cruel heart of Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's sole novel. Peeling away much more than the story's annoying framing device — there is no musical score, and definitely no Kate Bush — Arnold, a director of uncommon originality, attacks our very notion of what a costume drama should look like. The result is neither dainty nor remotely refined: It's an animalistic, mud-splattered howl of torment.
But those familiar with Arnold's unflinching films (Red Road, Fish Tank) already know that to her, passion is rarely pretty. Opening with an unnervingly lengthy scene of Heathcliff (played as a child by Solomon Glave and later by James Howson) bashing his head repeatedly into a stone wall, the film flashes back to the boy's windswept introduction to his adoptive family. Found on the moors by Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), a middle-class farmer, and dragged home because "it were the Christian thing to do," young Heathcliff is immediately despised by Earnshaw's jealous son, Hindley (Lee Shaw). Daughter Cathy (Shannon Beer, then Kaya Scodelario), wayward and willful, has a more visceral reaction: She spits on him.
That contempt doesn't last, though the undercurrent of racism that the action signifies is a constant. By making Heathcliff black (which the gypsy of the novel quite probably was), Arnold adds an extra layer to the brusque callousness of the Earnshaw household. Virtually ignored by the hardworking adults, the youngsters run wild in the deserted landscape, their emotions as elemental as their surroundings. "How can you leave this?" Cathy asks her adoring companion at one point, while Robbie Ryan's bitingly raw cinematography fixes on bird feathers and animal carcasses, and the tactile sweep of a horse's mane. Her attachment to Heathcliff and the land are one and the same.
Captured with ravishing naturalism — from eye-straining candlelight to painfully harsh daylight — and a hand-held camera, the film has a melancholy, sinister atmosphere only partly explained by its lashings of rain and banks of gray fog. Seemingly intent on highlighting the stone-cold realities of an era where disease and toil and childbirth killed off most people before they hit 40, Arnold has created a world virtually divorced from affection. Slaughtered or abused animals litter the screen, and when Hindley and his wife have sex — in a field, at a distance from the camera — they might as well be pigs rutting. Even a simple baptism feels like an assault.
So powerfully minimalist is the film's first half that, by the time we meet Edgar Linton (a barely noticed James Northcote), Cathy's future husband, the film's aversion to exposition becomes difficult to sustain. Consequently, Heathcliff's rapid and uneasy rise in status may confuse anyone unfamiliar with the story, though the reasons for Cathy's choice of "handsome, rich and pleasant" over her intense adoptive brother are crystal clear.
Sexual in a purely bestial way — when Heathcliff is brutally flogged, Cathy languidly licks the wounds on his back — this Wuthering Heights presents a brilliantly pagan reading of a story without heroes, least of all Heathcliff: A glum, brooding presence with vivid hints of viciousness, he lurks outside doors and windows, peering in at everything he cannot have. By confronting the character's vengeful sadism, Arnold — the anti-Merchant Ivory — has made a film that's not just faithful to the text but deeply attuned to the savagery of its emotions. I can still smell the sweat. (Recommended)