Andrea Arnold's savagely wonderful adaptation of Wuthering Heights is romantic in the way that bar fights are routine oral surgery. We all know the Byronic bones of Emily Brontë's story: A benevolent Christian farmer adopts a young boy, Heathcliff, who is embraced by his teenage daughter, Catherine, and abused by his son, Hindley. When the farmer dies and Cathy's affection finds another focus, Heathcliff's love grows teeth and a heart for revenge.
Arnold's masterful directing shines through in this adaptation. Race adds a layer of inequity and hopelessness as Heathcliff is portrayed for the first time by brilliant black actors—James Howson plays the elder Heathcliff, and Solomon Glave plays the younger—who seethe more than brood. Through a series of simple, intimate shots of hair and horses and acres of sucking mud, we're pulled into Heathcliff's deepening love for Cathy. Another series of shots—this time, of rabbits' necks being snapped and sheep bleeding out—viscerally gut their fractured relationship.
Shannon Beer is perfectly coarse and vibrant as young Cathy, but Arnold's biggest misstep was casting Kaya Scodelario as the elder Cathy. She's bland and tepid, like room-temperature rock soup, and her on-screen chemistry with Heathcliff is nonexistent. Fortunately, this is Heathcliff's movie, and he carries it well. As Heathcliff methodically plots his revenge on Cathy, his environment seethes around him: The wind howls, Hindley drinks himself to death in a corner, and men are beaten with the casual brutality of farm life. The beauty of Heathcliff is that despite his coldness, it's impossible not to see a man worth loving just as clearly as the woman who now throws her heart at him: poor, stupid Isabella Linton. And so we pray for a happy ending, even as Heathcliff's self-inflicted doom is most apparent, even as he hangs a cocker spaniel by its collar on a fence and leaves it to die.