Bad-ish Movie: Wuthering Heights
I read Emily Bronte‘s Wuthering Heights, about the titular estate where the multi-generational drama of the Earnshaw family unfolds, when I was in Grade 12 (?) and as with public (Catholic) school education, we watch clips from a movie adaptation after reading the book, or at least when our teacher expects most of us to have read the book. She chose the 1993 version, with Anne Devlin’s script and directed by Peter Kosminsky. The other class, however, saw the Olivier version, which I’ve run into on TCM and changed it because there was a ball scene where every character wears the latest fashions. I changed the channel. It’s as if the studio system only knew one way of dressing and setting up period movies. And they keep putting ball scenes in these fucking movies.
As much as it got carried away with the thunder, lightning and beating branches on a window thing and although it also feels like more an adapted Harlequin novel, the Gothic tone is still present, the smell of old wood and the texture of the walls. Kosminsky pushes the camera back, his colours lighter and subdued. Ryuchi Sakamoto‘s score is great, although it would have been more memorable in a better movie. It has the grand scale that maverick director Andrea Arnold’s newer and cramped version doesn’t.
This version also has a lot in common Arnold’s movie. Both adaptations lack in evoking Emily Bronte’s storytelling and multiple perspectives. Although this one has Sinead O’Connor narrating, using words like ‘fire,’ ‘ice’ and ‘wolfish’ taking me back to Bronte’s image-heavy prose. But they see a portrait to a stunted childhood that I never did, Heathcliff (Ralph Fiennes) and his adopted sister/love interest Catherine (Juliette Binoche) playing in the dangerous moors, their characters hardened by the violent prehistoric creation of this unique rocky English landscape.
When they decide to sneak into the Linton family-owned Grange, some guard dogs attack Catherine, she stays in the manor to heal while throwing out Heathcliff the gypsy. This separation becomes more symbolic, Catherine becoming a mature English woman while Heathcliff stays the same. She even chooses to marry Edgar Linton over Heathcliff. What does this mean then if they’re placed against each other in a binary of adulthood and arrested development? Never has the place Wuthering Heights seem like a child-friendly Arcadia nor Heathcliff seem innocent to me either in the book or the three adaptations. He’s narcissistic but he’s also more destructive than tantrum-y, and this is one of the most restrained Fiennes characters I’ve ever seen. And I always thought that their relationship ended because factors have wedged them as opposed to growing apart.
If there’s a binary between them it’s the superficial ones like class and gender, Heathcliff being the more masculine outcast surprisingly has a stronger chance of survival. That’s mostly because of the upper class’ decadence that lead to their decline. Heathcliff, clinging to opportunities like his adopted brother Hindley’s (Jeremy Northam) gambling debts, becomes cunning. He preys on Edgar’s sister and ruining the innocent young woman’s life, becoming the villain that Hindley and to a certain extent, Catherine have painted him.
Arnold’s draws out the childhood scenes and skips the years between Heathcliffe’s disappearance while Kosminsky keeps the playtime down to 10 minutes or less, then shows Catherine’s marriage to the Lintons. But it’s not so much better here as the movie has a ‘this happened and this happened and this happened,’ trying to give every part of the novel justice while losing any of the chapters’ immediacy.
Despite Binoche’s competent handle of the English accent – giving her an advantage from any French actress within twenty years of her – and her elegance in dresses designed by James Acheson, watching her giggle and hum her way out makes Catherine look insipid. I prefer to know what characters are laughing at. It’s like watching a 40-year-old Norma Shearer play Juliet and Marie Antoinette, although comparing Shearer’s worst to Binoche’s worst is an insult to the former. She, like we do, gets a raw deal with a passive character but she doesn’t pull out the tragic side of Catherine in later scenes. Even then can she only process one level of emotion at a time, like a scene when she discourages her sister-in-law against Heathcliff, hating him as if she never loved him, if that makes sense. I’ve praised Binoche’s chops many times here but she got this role too late in her career and keep in min that this is her starting out.
It’s a dealbreaker for this movie and nor does Fiennes, relying on his dark make-up and hair pieces – like most of the cast – more than his own talent, falls short in a role that others have loved. Both have been in great movies during the same year this was released and it’s fortunate that they’re known for those instead of this hot mess. Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard Kosminsky’s name attached to any major project after this. Also starring in the film is the younger version of Janet McTeer as the maid and Catherine’s clear-headed best female friend Nelly.
- The Brontë sisters are always our contemporaries (telegraph.co.uk)