05 January 2009

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights

This is the Best Adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Ever.
By Kristin Battestella

Wuthering Heights (1992)I would never takeaway from Laurence Olivier and his 1939 classic Wuthering Heights, but the tweaks made for that staple adaptation distract from the original gothic novel by Emily Bronte. Fortunately, the aptly named 1992 Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights captures the depressing love and gothic spirit of the 1847 novel with haunting locales and beautiful performances.
When Mr. Earnshaw brings the lonely gypsy boy Heathcliff to his home Wuthering Heights, daughter Catherine and the boy quickly become soul mates. Cathy’s older brother Hindley, however, is jealous of Heathcliff’s favor. Once their father has died, Hindley turns Heathcliff into a servant in the house hold, although faithful maid and cook Ellen Dean remains the go between for Cathy and Heathcliff. Unfortunately, Cathy chooses the company of the wealthy Thrushcross Grange neighbor Edgar Linton, and Heathcliff runs away. Two years after Cathy marries Edgar, Heathcliff returns, himself wealthy. He buys Wuthering Heights and uses his power to ruin the Lintons and the Earnshaws, Cathy, and himself.

Although the story is well known, I don’t wish to give everything away. Even if you know nothing of the source novel, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is still darn good drama about love and loss and the effects of wealth, power, and social class and how these things can shape the fortune-or misfortune- of others.

But, I must admit there is a bit of a precursor to understanding director Peter Kosminsky’s (White Oleander) vision. You really ought to be familiar with the story or better still have read the book. The first time I caught Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights late one night on TNT, I hadn’t read the book. I was so confused about who was who and when all this was happening and who the heck was telling the story! And yet, I was captivated by such tortured people. I don’t like Jane Austen or any of these sappy ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ or for love or money type stories. My 21st century mind can’t figure these chicks who let social class get in the way of happiness. Wuthering Heights, however, is quite different. Catherine and Heathcliff have one of the most famous romances in literature, but it is one f*cked up relationship! Ghosts and graves, abuse and death. Jane Austen, I think, would faint.

I promptly read Emily Bronte’s novel, then re-watched the picture. Screenwriter Anne Devlin’s (The Rainbow) adaptation almost line for line recreates the book-minus time convolutions and the like. The beautiful dialogue can be tough to hear or understand, but there is such lyrical beauty to this twisted talk of love and life borne on the moor; heartbreak and forgiveness uttered on the same dying breath, then cursing each other to never rest in peace. It’s emotional and perhaps too 19th century, yes, but it’s also like the train wreck from which you can’t look away.

I didn’t know who Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, Red Dragon, The Constant Gardner) was before this film, but if I never saw him in anything else, I probably still couldn’t forget his tortured and conflicted but no less villainous Heathcliff. His Oscar nominated performance in The English Patient has its steamy parts, sure, but its annoying and overlong after awhile. Fiennes here is tightly wound, saying much in his quick, veiled words. He captures Heathcliff perfectly in physique. The black clothes, unkempt greasy ponytail, angry but weepy eyes. This is a wonderful character to play, but its not an easy role to pull off. All the vile things Heathcliff does, we still love him, root for him, and think him simply lovelorn and misunderstood.

Likewise, Fiennes’ Oscar winning English Patient co star Juliette Binoche (Chocolate) shines in the duel role as Cathy and later her daughter Catherine. She may seem a tease or a snoot to start, but when Binoche shows us the real Cathy full of heartbreak and burdens and issues, you are hooked upon these characters’ cruel twist of fate. Daughter Catherine’s innocence and defiance and hope for the future are played well by Binoche, especially in contrast with all the death and bitterness of the first generation.

Beyond the unhappy couple, Janet McTeer as maid Ellen ‘Nelly’ Dean (Carrington) and Jeremy Northham as Hindley are pleasant surprises. Northham (The Tudors) doesn’t have enough to do, but he portrays the rise and fall of drunken Hindley perfectly. Nelly is a delight as the onscreen representative of right and reason in this mystical moor gone awry. Although in such wild Yorkshire moors I would have expect more pronounced accents all around, but I digress.

Its awkward to see Juliette Binoche don the blonde wig, but the costumes, sets, and locations add all the extra ambiance to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. When its time to look poor, the Heights and its persons turn into shabby and dirty folks. The actors must have been hot in all the extra wraps and capes, but this visual element of cold and lack of warmth adds that extra touch. Likewise the glamour, lights, and satins of the Grange are all superficial and pretty. I don’t think the outdoor shots of the Moors were used enough, but the green and windswept locales we do see are perfect, as are the exterior set ups of the titular house. When the timeline moves forward, so do the costumes, dust, and decay.

I was glad to find Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights on DVD, but beyond the standard film presentation, there are no features. Thank Heaven, though, that there are subtitles! The only artistic license that the film takes are opening and closing bookends featuring Emily Bronte (an unusually cast Sinead O’Connor) herself wondering the moors and periodically explaining a few things via narration. It’s a little hokey, but very useful-if not critical- to set up the story, and this was certainly easier than jumping about with Nelly and the stranger Lockwood as the book does.
Even if you aren’t a fan of English literature, give Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights a try. Fans of the cast and period piece philes will adore this tale again and again. Action and effects lovers will dismiss of course, but there’s nothing overt enough in this PG film to deter teens or younger. Teachers or parents might enjoy trying to introduce this fine story to the next generation. I’ve actually only see this film a handful of times and read the book once or twice, but Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as a book or movie is tough to forget.

1 comment:

Erin O'Riordan said...

This was the one I watched in high school when we were reading the book in Brit Lit. I was 17 and I hated the book. When I re-read it as an adult, I fell hopelessly in love with the story. The 1992 adaptation still holds a special place in my heart, but lately I've been pretty excited about the more recent version with Tom Hardy as Heathcliff and Charlotte Riley as Cathy.