The Romance-Free Re-Invention of 'Wuthering Heights'

With innovative casting and stark storytelling, Andrea Arnold's film is a breathtakingly fresh interpretation of the Emily Brontë novel.

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It's an ancient story. Girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, but girl cannot date boy because of an unbreachable social chasm. Warring tribal politics prevent Romeo and Juliet from their happily ever after. In Twilight, it's because of intra-species constraints. Hubbell and Katie prove that lock-jawed WASPs and Jewish Marxists in the McCarthy era do not a marriage make.

So it is in Emily Brontë's 1847 dark classic Wuthering Heights, where higher-class Cathy Earnshaw and Healthcliff, a foundling from Liverpool who Mr. Earnshaw adopts, pine for one another over the course of a lifetime. Not only is the trope of impossible love a worn-in thread in the fabric of storytelling, but Brontë's novel has been adapted to film no fewer than 17 times, from the iconic 1939 gothic version starring Laurence Olivier, to Luis Buñuel's surrealist 1954 interpretation set in Mexico, to MTV's 2003 retelling at a California high school. So how to put a fresh spin on an eternal story? How does a filmmaker re-invent such a canonical text?

"It's kind of a stupid thing to do, isn't it?" asked Andrea Arnold, the director of the latest iteration of Wuthering Heights, which opens in theaters this Friday. "I said I'd never do an adaptation or a period piece, and here I am doing the most famous book of all time." Despite Arnold's initial misgivings, she has crafted a singular, subtle film that stands on its own. Stripped of costume-y froth or a swelling score, the film is as airy as the windswept moors and just as harsh. Arnold communicates the first throbs of desire between the young couple with very little dialogue, and uses the tawny hills, the crest of their horses' backs, and the slapping rain to represent their visceral connection and the sadomasochistic impossibility of their courtship. Unlike Twilight and similarly romantic tales, Arnold's film shows forbidden love not as sweet sorrow, but rather as bone-grinding misery punctuated with moments of transcendent rapture.

But the most immediate liberty that Arnold takes in Wuthering Heights, which has typically been relayed through Cathy's eyes, is to inhabit Heathcliff's point of view. He is a mysterious outsider and a seething ball of nerves, in Cathy's world but never of it. To tell this story of difference, Arnold cast a black Heathcliff. And since she transmits so much of the narrative through the visuals, audiences may wonder: Is this progress to expand the Brontë's white milieu to reflect the broader reality of the world, or is casting a black Heathcliff just a cheap shortcut to portray incongruity?

Arnold achieves both: her Wuthering Heights encompasses a more inclusive—and wrenching—worldview through its visual vocabulary. If you stretch your memory way back to high school English, you might recall that Heathcliff is, in fact, markedly separate from the Earnshaw family. Brontë describes him as "a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect." Attempting to stay true to Brontë's story, Arnold and the crew originally tried to cast a gypsy in the lead role. They visited Romany camps in the north of England, but to no avail. "As I went along the casting process," Arnold told me, "I began to feel less worried about being totally faithful to that description, and it was more his difference that was important." Since the story spans several decades, Arnold cast two sets of Heathcliffs and Cathys, young and old, which few adaptations have done. The two Heathcliffs are extraordinary, with James Howson portraying the older Heathcliff, but Solomon Glave gives the most astonishing breakout performance since Anna Paquin in The Piano. His inky eyes tell a world of hurt as he endures violent throttling by—depending on your point of view—his rescuers or captors.

The director doesn't see her interpretation as especially radical. "Heathcliff has been portrayed as a gypsy with dark skin so it's not such a big leap I've taken," Arnold said. "In fact, they blacked up Laurence Olivier. There are lots of things in the book that I played around with. He's brought from Liverpool, there was a massive slave trade in Liverpool at the time, so you could possibly think that he's related to a slave. But it's not a fact in the book, it's just something that Brontë suggests and plays with. And to say that I'm making a direct statement sort of takes away from the playfulness and sort of exploring."

Glave and Howson are the perfect Heathcliffs, with their dark brew of interiority and vulnerability. This makes Arnold's artistic choice work. Were Glave and Howson lesser actors, the casting would come off as gimmicky, maybe even patronizing. But given the type of lily-white period pieces we're used to seeing, like Downton Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and even the latest BBC rendition of Wuthering Heights, the choice still seems subversive. One interpretation is that class and ethnic distinctions are no longer the insurmountable obstacles they would have been in England in the 19th century, so to make the gulf resonate with audiences today, Heathcliff must be darker, more different from Cathy. Perhaps interracial romance is one of the last taboos for film to conquer, as Hollywood on-screen couples have not caught up with the real world. Placing the lovers in the confines of a period drama highlights that tension even more.

But perhaps the casting seems subversive because the whole film goes against the grain, turning the idea of the costume drama on its head. And a Brontë story provides the perfect stage on which to perform cinematic handstands. Emily Brontë is the moody, broody doppelganger to Jane Austen's giggly gaggle of engagement-ring schemers. It's Hannah Horvath compared to Carrie Bradshaw. Rather than revel in the baroque trappings of bustles and skirts and elaborate ballroom scenes, most of the yearning takes place outside in high grass or down in the mud. Arnold interprets a love story free of romance, or as she describes Wuthering Heights, "It's gothic, feminist, socialist, sadomasochistic, Freudian, incestuous, violent, and visceral." It's a radical love story to tell in any era, and more modern still to tell with talented black actors, who bring more meaning to Cathy's confession of "He's more myself than I am" than many Heathcliffs before.