True, the Fish Tank auteur’s rethink was never going to be cut from the refined cloth of CliffsNotes or Cliff Richard’s musical. Even so, there’s something satisfyingly jolting about the way Arnold makes Brontë her own.
Her handheld camera slams us right into the thick of a dog-poor family in a haggard northern farm. There, love erupts between Cathy (played by Shannon Beer, then Skins ’ Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff, played by black actors (Solomon Glave and James Howson), a spin on Brontë’s “dark-skinned gypsy” line that lends racial resonance to the prejudice he endures.
Recalling Fish Tank ’s empathy for young, raw emotions, their relationship’s no prettier than the rain-lashed moors they haunt, their confused feelings mirrored by DoP Robbie Ryan’s near-tactile rendering of the Yorkshire setting.
Life is nasty, brutish and short there. Sex is shorter still. The plot, however, drags a bit. The end stretch feels emotionally distant, partly because the cast (a touching Nichola Burley aside) spout lines like surly teenagers and partly because the violence verges on monotonous.
Accept that Brontë wrote about elemental feelings alien even to those struck by them, though, and that distance isn’t without reason. The one major misfire is the climactic Mumford & Sons song, a rare concession to popular trends in a brazen experiment that otherwise stoops to no such compromises.