Through Arnold’s lens, Wuthering Heights is far from Jane Austen, with its drawing room passive-agressiveness and breathless romanticism. It’s a gruff film that satisfies itself with glances instead of conversations, tableaus instead of backs-and-forths. When feelings are stiltingly spoken of, it’s through a choked voice and with a growl of reticence. That’s not to say this isn’t an intimate film. Arnold defines cinematic sense memory with how she and DP Robbie Ryan choose what to leave the camera on. One can never have touched a sheep before and know what it feels like based on how they show the strands of wool poking between fingers. The environment of the moors is communicated so evocatively that one feels like they know the exact temperature at filming, or the exact level of moisture in the air, or how it feels to run through the soupy fog and part it with your body. The sound design of constant wind adds to a level of intense immersion. Because the childhood section is framed as Heathcliff’s memories, Arnold has given serious thought to what a person would remember, and they might remember fixating on a fuzzy moth as your teenage crush helps you dry off from the rain, or how a butchered pheasant hanging upside down looks like it’s crying tears of blood. The warmth of the memories transfer onto the relationship and elevate it as a thing worth rooting for.
Outside of Arnold’s idiosyncratic flourishes, the elemental nature of the story still comes through and is accentuated by Arnold’s continued interest in social class. The romantic part of the story, as well done as it is, is a side theme to the film’s true purpose. Arnold’s three films each explore those at the bottom of their respective societies. While this is the only time she’s gone back in time, Wuthering Heights rhymes with her other work in how it emphasizes the artificiality and the stickiness of class assumptions, and in how those assumptions make everyone worse. The casting of Heathcliff adds a new wrinkle, and makes him stand out all the more in his adulthood as someone who can dress up as a member of a higher class but never be fully accepted as one of them. Wuthering Heights beautifully and painfully demonstrates how class provides the cruel an easy rubric of who they should direct their cruelty towards, and that cruelty recapitulates itself over and over again until someone with the grace to do so breaks the cycle. What makes the story so tragic is that it recognizes how difficult it can be to find that grace and allows for the possibility of never finding it at all.
Of the four actors who portray Catherine and Heathcliff, only Scodelario has an extensive resume. This is a tragedy for several reasons. Scodelario is strong in the most recognizable romantic role, but the other three distinguish themselves as excellent actors in their own right. Beer is wonderfully open and mischievous, and Glave is heartbreaking in a classic ‘sad kid’ archetype that he makes his own through the incorporation of a fiery resistance. In what remains his only film role, Howson, who was placed in psychiatric holding shortly after the film’s release following a domestic disturbance, brings a chilly unpredictability that hasn’t yet smothered all the hope inside him. Arnold has long worked with unknowns and first-time actors, and she has an eye for finding the needle in the haystack amongst what must have been hundreds of submissions and auditions.
The true star of the film is behind the camera. With Wuthering Heights, Arnold punched her ticket with me as a must-watch director. This is the kind of film that opens a new level of cinematic vocabulary and makes the viewer wonder why every film can’t look like this. Arnold’s particular style matches perfectly with Bronte’s tale of windy isolation and chilly remembrance, and the combination is a spellbinding definition of sense memory worthy of Webster’s. A