Wuthering Heights (15)

A murky adaptation is flawed but full of passion.

Wuthering Heights (15)
dir: Andrea Arnold

Is Michael Fish busy these days? I can picture him standing outside cinemas where Andrea Arnold's new film is playing, providing consumer advice beyond the classification board's remit. If ever a film demanded its own weather forecast, it is this one. "Wuthering Heights", it says on the tin, but the Trade Descriptions Act would not kick up a storm if it were sold as a frugal remake of Twister.

Should you ever have found yourself in a hurricane without earmuffs, you will already have heard the film's soundtrack. Get the weather and the landscape right in Wuthering Heights and you are practically home and dry. Or wet. Lash goes the rain. Crash goes the barn door. Howl goes the wind, moaning and mith­ering like a god with toothache. Perhaps the wind is complaining that the film is only half an adaptation, not a Brontësaurus but a Brontë sawn in two. An unusual sort of spoiler alert is required here, a warning about what doesn't happen. Put it this way: the picture stops dead long before Heathcliff does.

The protective friendship that flourishes between Heathcliff and Cathy when the former is taken in by the latter's father is detailed patiently, down to the last pearl of dew on the moors where they play. The cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, operates a handheld judder-cam that breathes down Heathcliff's neck as he flees his own baptism and vaults over a wall with Olympic aplomb. This is swapped for a jockeycam when Heathcliff clings to Cathy on horseback: the image, already foreshortened by the film's unconventional square frame, becomes a whirlwind of Cathy's tangled hair, through which the blue sky gets only a sporadic look-in.

Rough-hewn is the order of the day. The lighting is so murky during the interior scenes that Kate Bush could have a walk-on as a stable hand and we'd all be none the wiser. Also, I'd like to touch a copy of the screenplay (credited to the director and Olivia Hetreed). I have reason to believe it was written on sandpaper. During Heathcliff's first meeting with the Lintons, the prosperous family into which Cathy marries, he berates those present with some frankly naughty words, including one very Naughtie one in particular. It's hard to imagine such language on the lips of some of those previously associated with the character (Laurence Olivier, Cliff Richard). However, Gordon Brown, a self-confessed Heathcliff-a-like, did spring to mind during the scene in which our hero bangs his head repeatedly against a wall.

Of the actors, most of whom weren't actors at all before the first snap of the clapperboard, James Howson and Kaya Scodelario have the rum deal: as the adult Heathcliff and Cathy, they feel listless next to Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, the fierce youngsters playing their junior selves. That's the risk with transplant casting: the characters can easily wilt and die in the handover. Beer is a lovely young bruiser whom you would be foolish not to back in a bareknuckle scrap. When the line on the page is "I like being dirty", it comes out of her mouth as: "Uh luck bin dirt-air." In the US, Gregory's Girl (1981) was revoiced entirely. I hope some Californian poppet isn't being lined up
to take the fizz out of Beer.

Early appraisals placing Arnold's work in the social-realist tradition were short-sighted. Her films are not Ken Loach - they're Cocteau, Terrence Malick, even Ovid, in their insistence on blurring the distinction between human beings and animals. If she has any spiritual forebears in British cinema, it is Powell and Pressburger, with their volatile sensuality bubbling over messily like forgotten stew. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wuthering Heights, which suggests I Know Where I'm Going! as much as it does Emily Brontë.

The film isn't perfect. In truncating the novel, Arnold might have gone the whole hog and turned the film over to the children. And why hold out for two stark hours without music, only to hand the final minutes of soundtrack time to Mumford & Sons, the Radio 2 mascots who are more whimpering than wuthering? (Was James Blunt not available?) And yet these are incidental errors. Arnold is as passionately driven as ever. She knows where she's going.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?