It is ten years since the last adaptation of Wuthering Heights (in the meantime, the novel was adapted by the MTV in 2003, which is self-explanatory as to the output, and the Italian RAI in 2004 with frosty results, not just due to the amount of snow shown there). This new co-production of Mammoth Screen with WGBH/Boston, written by Peter Bowker and directed by Coky Giedroyc, is clearly more ambitious than the 1998 one.
The first noticeable aspect is that 'unreliable' narrators, as they have sometimes been termed, Lockwood and Nelly are abandoned in favour of an impromptu flashback a few minutes into the series, which opens with the second generation. We soon meet the young Catherine, together with Edgar and Linton Heathcliff, both of them making a good display of the so-called 'costume drama cough' and other similar tale-telling costume drama afflictions like shortness of breath. The absence of the intermediate figure of the narrator (or narrators) is a key element in the tone of the film. The mythical element is replaced by a more earthly approach.
A sudden flashback takes us back to the moment when Mr Earnshaw brings his unexpected gift from
The mysterious life Heathcliff led during the three years when he was away is broached (as are his origins at the beginning of the flashback), although - as in the novel - no conclusion is reached. When he returns he has fortunately cut off his (clearly fake) mane. The scenes at this point develop quickly, some more changed than others, some working better than others. This last point is, of course, a matter of personal taste. Purists will not like to see some changes while others might admit that within the series, a scene might work better that way, which a good many do.
The return to the second generation is, as the flashback when it began, rather abrupt. However, the amount of time devoted to this second - often overlooked - part of the novel is certainly welcome. Indeed, the penultimate scene - we would rather avoid commenting on the very last scene which goes absurdly against the whole atmosphere of the adaptation- is surprisingly touching and moving.
After so many previous adaptations of
But not all the changes work so well. Early on in the story Catherine Linton's tombstone states that she died at 25 in 1830, which moves the action forward in time in comparison with the novel. The reasons behind the change in the time period are not quite so clear as the reasons behind the change in Catherine's age (i.e. to justify the use of young actors instead of teenagers), 18 at the time of her death in the novel. These changes entail a string of adjustments, some of which turn out to be better than others. The three years that elapse between Heathcliff's escape and Edgar and Catherine's wedding made sense in the novel, as Catherine was only 15 and waited until 18. Here instead, Catherine waits three years (22-25) for no given reason with the possible exception of staying true to the written word. These changes make it possible for Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (first published in 1819) to be seen a few times, providing a highly significant token of love between generations and relatives. And whether intentional or not this also is a nice tip of the hat to the Walter Scott lovers the young Brontës were.
At the risk of sounding as purists who expect every word and every detail of the novel to have been incorporated into the film, we must say that we sorely missed the surrounding bits of the 'Nelly, I am Heathcliff' speech. We also found strange - though we are still unsure of whether in a positive or negative way - to hear Catherine telling Heathcliff about her dream of heaven in a church. One of the wonders of adaptations is that, while actual words might be kept untouched (or mostly so), the scenes and the feelings conveyed in them may largely vary. Thus, Heathcliff's grief-stricken speech is presented in a new light which, as many changed scenes, is surprisingly fitting.
Lately we have seen several adaptations of period classics try and get more real in aspects such as cleanliness, etc. And while we find the kitchen and, actually, the rest of the rooms in Wuthering Heights to be scrupulously clean, we also welcome passing details such as missing teeth (in extras, obviously) or torn clothes.
The setting - as told in the behind-the-scenes videos - was carefully selected, to the advantage of the series and, thus, the viewer. Houses, furniture have all been lovingly tended to.
Costumes are a different matter, however. While we don't presume to be experts on the subject, we find it quite shocking to see Catherine wearing a red jacket and red stockings: the bit where she wears both along with braids is impossibly reminiscent of Pippi Longstocking. And we see way too much of 'her' when next she becomes a lady at Thrushcross Grange and takes to wearing more fashionable clothes (who would have thought Wonderbra existed already?), fashionable and light-coloured, which clashes with the fact that she is supposedly still mourning her father.
The photography by Ulf Brantås deserves a special mention, as he is able to present strikingly beautiful images and resist the temptation to increase the creepy illumination (usually associated to the Gothic elements of the novel) and works coherently with the naturalistic reading that the director confers to the movie. The music by Ruth Barrie, percussive and modern, travels in the same direction achieving remarkable effects, like the musical accompaniment of Heathcliff under the rain awaiting the news of Catherine's death.
As for the actors, Tom Hardy portrays Heathcliff with a subdued intensity, which sometimes recalls a young Brando, conveying emotions through his body language and powerful looks. Though Tom Hardy tries hard to deliver a convincing psychological evolution of his tormented character, this works better towards the middle of the story (unsurprisingly coinciding with the absence of the wig power), the overall sensation is that the Byronic attractive of the character is only partially achieved. Irregularities of, and omissions in, the script development of his character in the first half might be more at fault than the actor's own approach. Perhaps a sign of the times? Heathcliff's marriage to Isabella Linton may gain - or lose - from the political correctness of our times, as Heathcliff doesn't abuse her physically at all. And neither does he hang little puppies.
Charlotte Riley's Cathy suffers from the same problem. The character's childishness and egocentrism is not entirely shown. The final result is thus burdened by these psychological omissions as her attachment to Heathcliff (and particularly her way of dealing with the triangle formed by herself, Heathcliff and Linton) is difficult to understand. Nevertheless, her Cathy is mostly able to overcome these barriers by delivering a nice, sometimes too nice, performance.
The Lintons are given more strength than in past adaptations. Andrew Lincoln's Edgar Linton is not (just) the weak, feeble, pale-skinned offspring of the endogamic rural aristocracy. Even Isabella Linton (Rosalind Halstead) gains some resolution in this version. We have been pleasantly surprised by the Catherine Linton played by Rebecca Night. Usually forgotten or mistreated by the adaptors (we still have nightmares with Juliette Binoche's wig in the 1992 version), this version leaves more room to the character's development. On the contrary, Hareton (played by Andrew Hawley), suddenly materialises towards the end and eventually gives vent to his metrosexuality. Who would have thought that?
As for the secondary characters, Zillah is predictably left out of the story in exchange for a Dorian Gray-like Nelly (Sarah Lancashire). And Joseph is hugely toned-down and beautified. His fire-and-brimstone admonitions might or might not have been substituted for the church scenes. Frances almost becomes a blink-and-you-miss-her character.
We can't conclude this rather lengthy, wordy review without saying that Wuthering Heights must be one of the most difficult literary works to adapt and, this production, while not a photocopy of its written original - and who would really want that - is respectful and understanding, but also innovative and coherent.
Watch Online (available until February 1)
Watch Online (available until February 1)