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'Wuthering Heights' film is first to cast black Heathcliff

The latest film adaptation of 'Wuthering Heights,' which is coming to the US in October, has received mixed reviews in the UK.

By Staff Writer / September 11, 2012

Emily Brontë classic 'Wuthering Heights' has been adapted into film before – Ralph Fiennes and Laurence Olivier have both played Heathcliff – but this will be the first time that a black actor (James Howson) has played the brooding protagonist.

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A new film version of Emily Brontë classic “Wuthering Heights,” which was released this past fall in the United Kingdom, will hit US theaters Oct. 2.

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 “Skins” actress Kaya Scodelario stars as Catherine Earnshaw, while actor James Howson plays Heathcliff, the first time a black actor has played the brooding hero.

“For me, it was quite clear in the book that he was dark skinned,” director Andrea Arnold told Film4. “He gets called a little Lascar, which would have been an Indian seaman, and Nelly says, ‘Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen’… I think his difference was certainly very important in my story and very important in the book.”

The movie’s trailer is atmospheric, with many shots of the moors and only glimpses into the story. It shows the young actors who play Catherine and Heathcliff, Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave, playing; Glave being beaten; and Howson as Heathcliff returning to the area and meeting Catherine as an adult.

“Wuthering Heights” has a 79 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and many reviewers noted how different the movie was from a usual costume drama. Some approved of this deviation, while others did not. Time reviewer Mary Corliss called the adaptation “faithful and bold” and said that casting a black actor in the role of Heathcliff was the project’s main strength.

For some critics, however, the dynamics between the leading couple were a problem. “What I found more of a problem was the faint stiffness and self-consciousness of the acting and the crucial lack of chemistry between the adult Heathcliff and Cathy,” Guardian reviewer Xan Brooks wrote. “We need to believe in this love in order for Arnold's gloriously bruised and brooding vision to properly hit home and I never did, quite.”

Telegraph reviewer Robbie Collin said he “loved it” and that “Andrea Arnold’s film certainly boasts the bonnets, romance, shots of the English countryside and 19th-century source material that are the form’s hallmarks; but it’s also strange, profane.”

However, Daily Mail critic Chris Tookey said that Brontë wouldn’t have intended her protagonist Heathcliff to be black and that because this decision made the story about race, not class, the story isn’t what the author would have wanted.

“Along with believability, period accuracy and faithfulness to the novel, Arnold sacrifices clarity. The performances are poor and opaque, so it’s hard to know what, or whether, anyone is thinking,” he wrote.

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