Wuthering Heights that it wants for a bold idea: Andrea Arnold, writer and director of the marvelous social-realist fables Red Road and Fish Tank, took her characteristic vérité style of hand-held camera and grotty sound and rugged, heavily naturalistic acting, and set it loose on the late-18th Century of Emily Brontë's hugely beloved Gothic drama of broken love on the Yorkshire moors. It is not enough to call this a "realistic" Wuthering Heights: it is more realistic than realism, harsh and low-fi, filthy in its depiction of the mud and dirt of everyday life in the days before hot and cold running water and filthy in its depiction of the hard, mean people who had what it took to eke out a kind of life in the miserable surroundings of that country. It is a brutal version of the story that, with its coarse language and casual violence (don't expect any "no animals were harmed" boilerplate in the credits), seeks to restore the squalid shock that the book initially had back when it was a brand-new scandal, long before it was ossified and made respectable.
Like I said, a bold idea, and one that I would absolutely love to see applied more often in a genre where "realism" typically consists of putting a bit extra dirt on the floors in an otherwise prim and dressy costume drama comme une autre. So all credit and honor to Arnold for attempting something new and challenging in the face of decades of stuffy prestige literary adaptations. Pity that the film itself is such an ineffective slog, which doesn't knock the scales away from Brontë's familiar book, and leave it feeling fresh and alive again after so many movie adaptations and high school English classes; rather, it's a movie that seems to have been made in the spirit of outright contempt for the source material, and while any of us may or may not feel that way, the question remains as to why you'd bother adapting Wuthering Heights in the first place if the story made you so angry that you wanted to treat it this way.
It doesn't feel like this ought to be the case, for most of Arnold's conceptual shifts are genuinely interesting and smart ways to reimagine the material from a more politically aggressive place: her increased emphasis on the class divisions of the central relationship, or her controversial but - on paper - brilliant decision to cast the surly Heathcliff with a black actor, drawing on a hint in the original novel and making this as much a study of how "nice people" deal with undesirable Others as anything else. Part of the problem with this proves to be one of basic story logic: rather than having her racially-coded Heathcliff be black in a symbolic way, Arnold goes right on ahead and makes Wuthering Heights a parable about racism, which would be meaningful if there was anything in the story to justify that kind of approach. I mean, hell, you can make Hester Prynne black and then turn The Scarlet Letter into a racism parable too, but there's no value or nobility in doing something so completely fucking daft.
That, in brief, explains everything that's wrong with the movie - though by now means is it a movie where everything is wrong, let's get that out of the way right now. The problem is that for everything it gets right (the jarring vérité camerawork, for example, does a fantastic job of bringing immediacy to the setting, even if it otherwise suffers from the usual sins of handheld cinematography: looking sloppy and being nauseating), the things it gets wrong are much more primal and distracting, and far easier to access, given that everything right is kind of theoretical and stylistic, while everything wrong is directly related to the story and characters and our inability or lack thereof to feel things about them.
Of course, the secret about Wuthering Heights has always been that it's a far cry from the weepy Gothic melodrama of its reputation, and more of an exposé of some very nasty people behaving nastily, and this is something that previous film adaptations have not necessarily wallowed in. So, on the face of it, unsympathetic protagonists aren't inherently film-breaking. And while it's difficult to feel very enthusiastic about spending two hours with such people, that's not really the problem here anyway: it's not that doomed lovers Catherine and Heathcliff are unlikable, but that they barely register as human, so insatiably ill-performed are they, and by two actors each: as children by Shannon Beer and Solmon Glave, respectively, as adults by Kaya Scodelario and James Howson (Scodelario is the only one of the bunch with any previous acting experience, and perversely, hers is the worst performance, though it's a race to the bottom).
This is especially upsetting given Arnold's track record with new and amateur actors: did not Fish Tank give us non-actor Katie Jarvis burning up the screen with one of 2009's finest, most alive performances, while also introducing the world to a certain actor of no particular note named Michael Fassbender? None of that this time around. The actors - and not just these four, though they are by far the ones who damage the movie worst (Nichola Burley as Catherine's sister-in-law, whom Heathcliff seduces in his jealous fury, is a ghastly mess of anachronistic line readings an leaden screen presence) - are thrown to the wild and left to die there by a director who has made the film-breaking mistake of stripping away all of the extraneous trappings that make costume dramas feel fussy and inhuman, in order to focus solely on the human figures, made to seem as relevant to a contemporary audience as could possible be done; and then failing to direct the actors to feel like humans at all. Scodelario gapes with a one-size-fits-all expression of light confusion and mouths her dialogue as though she'd was learning the script phonetically, while the cameras were rolling; the children are clearly not aware at all of what's going on, and feel more like parodies of adults than pre-adolescents with the first stirrings of lust. Howson, of all of them, acquits himself the best, mostly by virtue of having the most straightforward character: his Heathcliff fumes and glowers and is a pissy shit, but that's not an inappropriate way to play the character, particularly given that the script has taken away everything else about his characterisation besides resentment at white people. Just like Brontë intended.
I'm inclined to give the film points just because the style is so striking, and as a concept, I love what Arnold was up to: a gritty, neo-realist costume drama that rips off all the sentiment is a nice antidote to all the respectable fussy and arid examples of the same drama that continue to plague us (I am reminded of Joe Wright's current, super-fussy Anna Karenina, which also tries to upend the costume drama apple cart, and also falls short, but respectably, and interestingly). The problems with this Wuthering Heights are severe: but they are simple. Most of what's here is interesting enough to be valuable on its own right without quite managing to be "good"; but it is an admirable failure, and rather than calling Arnold's ability into question (though seriously, those performances needed so much help), it points hopefully to her ambition and intelligence, which has in this case somewhat exceeded her ability.