The most recent film version of Wuthering Heights strips the romance from Emily Brontë’s classic novel.
If, as has often been depicted, the relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy is a love story, it is one that contradicts love’s definition in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Never has that been more clear than in the 2011 version recently released to DVD, though British director (and co-screenwriter) Andrea Arnold falls short explaining the forces behind it.
Arnold’s version focuses on Heathcliff, casting him as the sole black character (the novel describes Heathcliff as a “dark-skinned gipsy” of indeterminate race). The racial difference has the effect of externalizing the obstacles between Heathcliff and Cathy and re-contextualizing the inequality that allows Cathy to escape an unhappy home while adopted child Heathcliff cannot.
The movie crafts a brutal environment defined by a patriarch who observes the rituals of religion but not the spirit of Christianity. Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) forces “heathen” Heathcliff through a baptism. He also slaps and whips his children while telling them to ask for God’s forgiveness.
The racial and religious subtext makes the first part of the movie thought-provoking, but dissipates once Heathcliff and Cathy grow up. Cathy, still a child, marries out of the family and Heathcliff runs away. When Heathcliff returns as a young man (terrific first-time actor James Howson), what seemed an understandable bond between two neglected children has inexplicably transformed into a sociopathic obsession that drives him to torture puppies and make out with a corpse. By contrast, Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) seems nearly blameless, making Heathcliff more unsympathetic.
Arnold’s movie does not tell the book’s story of Cathy’s and Heathcliff’s children, and does not offer character redemption or lessons learned. The movie’s one success is the rich cinematic experience, achieved through extreme close-ups and minimal dialogue.
The film is not rated, but beware male nudity (in profile), strong language, physical and verbal child abuse, graphic killing of farm animals, and the disturbing behavior described above.