A flesh-and-blood take on ‘Wuthering Heights’

I feel for those well-meaning “Downton Abbey” fans who wander into a theater to see the new movie of “Wuthering Heights,” looking for a period classic with nice ruffled costumes and lovely teacups and the traditions of English literature.

Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel was never about those things, but we do tend to lump together the various pieces of the British literary tradition. In any case, director Andrea Arnold has taken up “Wuthering Heights” as a raw, feral tale of thwarted desire and class prejudice and blood. Travel here at your own risk.

It’s quite a movie: grimy, personal, full of the mud of the Yorkshire moors. On this moor sits the home of the Earnshaws, whose father impulsively takes in an orphan boy and calls him Heathcliff.

You probably know the story from there: Rough Heathcliff develops an intense friendship with Catherine, the Earnshaw daughter, and they carry this tempestuous relationship into adulthood, with dire consequences.

Because Bronte’s novel shocked quite a few people when originally published, it may be appropriate that this movie version will startle unsuspecting moviegoers.

Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” marked her as a British filmmaker to be reckoned with, and not for the faint of heart. Those ground-level looks at the grittier side of modern life are consistent with Arnold’s take on “Wuthering Heights,” which emphasizes the damp moors and the hard transactions between human beings.

As the young Heathcliff and Cathy go riding, he stares at her hair blowing behind her; and when they arrive at an outcropping, they lie and listen to the roaring of the wind. This is how you convey ideas and feelings in movies, without relying on dialogue for a shortcut.

These scenes are so vivid we never doubt the dark, profound link between Heathcliff and Cathy, even after things begin to go bad.

This is powerfully conveyed, although it must be said that something changes in the film when the two young actors who play the lovers, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, are replaced by adult actors James Howson and Kaya Scodelario. The adults are fine, but we’ve really been on a journey with these two young orphans of the storm.

Along with her frankness, Arnold has goosed the material by casting black actors in the role of Heathcliff (the novel suggests that Heathcliff is not Caucasian). This is an interesting idea, although it would be a shame if it overshadowed the other bold decisions she’s made in this adaptation.

This is a movie that treats love and obsession as literally life-and-death issues, and doesn’t pull any punches in exploring that kind of passion. As harsh as “Wuthering Heights” is at times, I think Emily Bronte might have approved.

“Wuthering Heights” (3½ stars)

The grim, feral nature of Emily Bronte’s classic novel is emphasized by director Andrea Arnold, who plays the love between outcast orphan Heathcliff (here imagined as a mixed-race character) and Cathy at a life-and-death pitch. The film’s full of mud and blood, and doesn’t pull any punches, so don’t go expecting a nice British period piece.

Rating: Not rated; probably R for nudity, violence, language.

Showing: Uptown theater.

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