When you think of costume dramas, you probably think of big candlelit ballrooms, flouncy gowns and men in captain’s uniforms trying desperately not to fall in love. Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights takes all these expectations and punches them in the face. Then it kicks out their knees, laughs as they fall in the mud and then licks the blood off of their enemies’ wounds. Not because Wuthering Heights is some kind of crazy grindhouse reinterpretation of Emily Bronte’s classic novel, but because it’s only interested in the grungy emotional core inside of it: the obsessions, the lust, the paranoia, the filth. The pure, soulful experience of young love twisted into gaping wounds that fester throughout a lifetime. That’s Wuthering Heights, and I think the world is a better place for having this particular version.
For context: I love costume dramas. Love was a lot more interesting when every aspect of society was hardwired to suppress it. When religion and high culture worked overtime to make the citizens of the western world (and beyond) forget the fact that they have hormones, it was all the more satisfying when young lovers just said “Screw it” and boinked like wildebeests. What’s the point of an elaborate corset if you don’t rip it off once in a while?
Wuthering Heights doesn’t begin with two star-cross’d lovers encaged in a tightly clenched social structure. It begins with two young children, Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Catherine (Shannon Beer), who may be adopted siblings but, on the moors of Northern England, they may as well be living on the Blue Lagoon for all the burgeoning sexual tension they have. Although their father sees their undeniable attraction and tries to shame them into godliness, they’re on their own, licking each other and dry humping in the mud until fate steps in, and Catherine winds up in “polite society,” shunning Heathcliff who, after his stepfather dies and his stepbrother starts treating him like a slave, runs away, returning as an apparently successful man (James Howson), determined to ruin the marriage of adult Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) to Edgar Linton (James Northcote), a marriage which based on propriety more than passion.
Wuthering Heights is not a tale of true love yearning to break free from social convention, it’s a tale of passion unable to break into it. Heathcliff is not a dashing rebel, he’s a wild thing of a man, willing to sacrifice everything for schadenfreude. He’s the anti-Edward Cullen, if you must make the comparison, able to cave into lust but not any sexier for it. Wuthering Heights is the sort of romance we still need, just as much about the perils of emotional connections as it is about their catharsis. This is a movie that doesn’t end with a wedding. It ends the same kind of abject misery that most love stories do. It’s about your last break up, writ large over the swath of a lifetime, with all the seedy desires stymied and all the hurtful things you momentarily wished you had done fully enacted in all their horrible simplicity.
Andrea Arnold directs Wuthering Heights with the kind of immediacy that only stillness can provide. The sensations evoked though her imagery are the sort we used to think only Terrence Malick was capable of, and demonstrate a clear understanding of human experience. We remember emotions, we remember little details, but the actual plots of our lives sometimes get swallowed in a miasma of subjectivity. The story is clear, but clearly being told by a human being willing to allow a strange sympathy to guide their hand. Though the tale of Wuthering Heights is tragic, to the point of monstrousness, it’s also a tale of simple beauty. Of life, in all its power and glory, destroying itself. It absorbs you fully, even traps you, and you’re better off for it.