"Wuthering Heights" remains popular among young women for some of the same reasons the "Twilight" novels are: It shows the heroine powerfully attracted to a possibly dangerous hero. Beneath all the period trappings of Emily Bronte's 1847 novel, beneath the brooding atmosphere of the Yorkshire moors, beneath the book's associations with classroom assignments, lurks … sex. This is the same sort of sex found in bodice-ripping romance novels, in which young virgins grow close but not too close to dark, ominous young men who threaten to sweep them off their feet. They're never quite swept, but the foreplay is tantalizing.
In this rough-hewn film version by the British director Andrea Arnold, gone is the stylized elegance of William Wyler's 1939 version, with its eight Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for cinematographer Greg Toland ("Citizen Kane"). Gone are the polished performances of Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, the servant from the Caribbean, and Merle Oberon as his young mistress, Cathy Earnshaw. Gone, too, is Heathcliff's greater age and height than Cathy.
Instead, this adaptation makes something evident that is strongly implied in the novel: Heathcliff, born as a slave, is Afro-Caribbean. He's played here by Solomon Glave as a youth and by James Howson after he returns to the Earnshaw family manor, having become in the meantime a wealthy man. Cathy (Shannon Beer when young, Kaya Scodelario when older) grows from a free-running, semi-wild child to a poised young lady whose transformation positions the two for what, at the time, would have been a transgressive relationship.
We're accustomed to imagining "Wuthering Heights" as a "Masterpiece Theater"-style production, but Arnold probably correctly depicts Yorkshire in the late 1700s as a brutal and savage society, especially among such as the struggling Earnshaws. Animals are mistreated, human niceties foresworn, and if Cathy's father (Paul Hilton) is kind enough to adopt the young orphan, her brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) is cruel and jealous after he becomes the Earnshaw heir. He beats Heathcliff, works him mercilessly and is overtly racist (surely this is the first adaptation using the N-word).