Monday, July 26, 2010

Wuthering Heights Film Review

To continue on my 20th-21st century interpretations of 19th century chick lit kick (bonus points if you understood what I just said on the first try), I will now treat you to a movie review!  I was inspired to watch a made-for-TV film adaptation of Emily Bronte's famed novel, Wuthering Heights, by Nora at Pride & Vegudice and I couldn't be happier about it.  Like her sisters, Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre which is the basis for Wide Sargasso Sea) and Anne, Emily's writing is dark and gloomy which makes for a delightfully disturbing movie.

For those who aren't familiar with the novel, Wuthering Heights takes place on the wild and stormy moors of Yorkshire, a setting which perfectly illuminates the turbulence of its characters.  The novel is replete with death, misery, thwarted love, and inbreeding (at this time the union of first cousins was acceptable and often desirable).  It is also marked by a notable lack of mothers, who rarely make it past childbirth, a fact which is not noted but clearly influences the lives of the characters.  It is truly a soap opera but of the darkest and most disturbing order, supremely satisfying in its drama and captivating in its darkness.

The first and most obvious thing that struck me about the film was that it took out the layers of narration that stand between readers of the novel and its story.  Whereas Bronte's tale of the Earnshaw and Linton families is merely repeated by an outsider who has the story narrated to him by a servant who is loyal to the family, the camera merely follows all the characters.  While it splits its time between all the characters and story lines with the same attention paid to them in the novel, this erasure of the layers of narrations offers a deeper look at the story than Bronte gave.  Because the story isn't filtered through the servant, Nelly, who has her own best interests to look out for and a stranger who doesn't really understand what happened or the people involved, the viewer is allowed more access to the characters.  This of course comes at the price of some 21st century writer's interpretation of the text which can be risky but in this case turns out really well.  Some liberties are taken, which is to be expected, but none are unreasonable and many the reader may have thought of on her own.  It seems as though the film reveals what Nelly chose to censor, and you know that something that believable has got to be good.

Another benefit of the alteration in narration is the humanization of Heathcliff.  Sure, he's still the classic villain - gambling, cheating, violent, disrespectful of other men's property women - but he's also a man who feels.  Bronte reveals his pain but the film really examines it.  We see a man who loves desperately and we empathize with him rather than reviling against him.  My husband, who has never read the novel,  felt bad for him which is a level of empathy that I'd imagine few readers come away with.  This could of course be due to the fact that the book takes longer to read so its easier to forget his tortured childhood when reading the novel than seeing the film, and thus forget what molded him into the man he becomes.  The camera merely shows what happens without passing judgement whereas Nelly, as a human and faithful servant, is unable to separate her feelings about the man who ripped her employer's family apart and brought pain to the children she raised as her own.  We see Heathcliff's anguish directly and feel for a man who has lost so much and been driven to such extremes.

For the strict 19th century-philes (is there a word for that?) out there, you may be disappointed that the costumes and music aren't exactly authentic to the time period but the score itself is quite lovely.  You will quickly forget, or at least manage to ignore, any anachronisms in light of the quality of the film as a whole.  It is upsetting, disturbing, and moving - everything I would expect from a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.  It's really quite well done, something I rarely say about films that are based on books (the other most notable exception being The Hours, one of my all-time favorite movies), and well worth your while.  Fortunately, the film is available instantly on Netflix so you really have no excuse for not watching it immediately.

I'll leave you with an interesting little tidbit about the actors: Charlotte Riley and Tom Hardy, who play Cathy and Heathcliff, met on the set of the film, began dating, and are now engaged.  A bit disturbing to think about really, once you've experienced their turbulent and destructive love.

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. (Cathy, Chapter 9)


  1. Hey Jennifer!
    I'm so glad you loved it. That's the great thing about Twitter and social media nowadays. You get to share information and recs instantly that make other people happy!
    I totally agree with you about removing the extra layer/filter of narration. It has always sort of annoyed me when I read the book. I find the stuff with Mr. Lockwood (that's his name, right?) exceedingly dull.
    I have to disagree with you on the Heathcliff stuff though. I don't disagree that you were able to empathize with Heathcliff in the movie; I disagree that you can't do so in the book. I didn't feel like there was a very material change on that score. I've always felt for, and understood Heathcliff's love in the novel itself.
    Great review though!! :)

  2. Now see, I don't know if I can bring myself to watch the film. The book is one of my all time favourites and I remember watching most of the film when I was in school. Thanks for the great, and thoughtful review! x