THE BONY FINGERS of a wind-stripped tree branch claw at the window while a handsome young man repeatedly runs his bloody head into a wall, sobbing. This is how Andrea Arnold's stripped-down, minimally spoken Wuthering Heights begins, and it doesn't get much easier to watch. Like most adaptations, Arnold's retelling of Emily Brontë's much-dissected 1847 novel addresses its earlier half, specifically the doomed, complicated relationship between Heathcliff (played by Solomon Glave and James Howson), a homeless boy taken in by the Earnshaw family in their rustic home on the merciless moors of Northern England, and their daughter Catherine (Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario).
Whereas Heathcliff's origins are ambiguous in the novel, Arnold simplifies his alienation from the other characters by choosing to portray him as black, the "n-word" being an occasional angle taken by hateful stepbrother Hindley (Lee Shaw) in his persecution of him. By doing so Arnold eliminates some of the societal debate that typically attends this story, throwing off the trappings of costume drama in favor of a visceral world where mud, blood, wind, wild bird feathers, and animal suffering intertwine with human drama.
Moody and strangely claustrophobic despite its open air, Arnold has managed to take one of literature's darker footnotes and plunge it further into willful misery. It's beautiful, uncomfortable, and particularly in its depiction of childhood, loaded with complexity.