Films that reach for the heights and plumb the depths

The latest movie version of Wuthering Heights proves the novel remains the great unfilmable book, says Film Critic Tony Earnshaw

Legend has it that Laurence Olivier was uncertain about accepting Sam Goldwyn’s offer to play Heathcliff opposite Merle Oberon in a blockbuster adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

It was 1938 and Olivier, still only 31, was the darling of the English stage. Unsure of how to respond to Hollywood – he had previously been fired from Garbo’s Queen Christina – he asked Ralph Richardson, a contemporary and close friend, for advice. “Yes. Bit of fame. Good,” was Richardson’s terse response. Olivier did the picture and became, overnight, an international sensation.

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It was not an easy film. Olivier had wanted lover Vivien Leigh to play Cathy and resented Oberon. And, mired in theatre technique, he struggled to deliver a plausible film performance, prompting Goldwyn to damn him as “stagey, hammy, awful”. One critic later attacked Olivier for acting rather than living the part.

Yet the film, directed by William Wyler from an erudite script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, was a winner. Did it matter that the movie was entirely fake, shot not on location in Yorkshire but in sunny Conejo Hills, California, complete with faux heather, on cowboy star Joel McCrea’s 450-acre range? No, of course not. But it was a version for the 1930s with Olivier as the satanic gipsy whose obsessive love for his childhood sweetheart turns his heart to ice, robbing him of humanity and compassion. If, as one writer observed, Olivier didn’t make Heathcliff demonic, he came close. And that was enough. Audiences weren’t ready for demonic in 1939.

Wuthering Heights is at the top of the list when it comes to timeless books. Dark, brooding, eerie and beyond romantic, its theme of complete oneness has haunted millions of readers across seven generations. The argument, oft opined, is that no film or television adaptation can hope to match readers’ collective imagination, and that any interpretation, no matter how reverential, will always be found lacking.

The Brontë sisters and the landscape from which they drew their inspiration have been picked over relentlessly. Yet while Emily, Charlotte and Anne have inspired several biographies, has anyone ever really brought their books definitively to the screen?

The earliest film version of Wuthering Heights, now lost, was made in 1920. It starred Milton Rosmer as a glowering, brutish Heathcliff in “Emily Brontë’s tremendous story of hate” and could have possibly been the most accurate, covering the entirety of the novel. Three actresses including Annie Trevor and child star Twinkles Hunter portrayed Cathy in what was, for the time, an epic five-reeler running 90 silent minutes and shot on location near Haworth.

In its review the Bioscope focused on Rosmer’s Heathcliff: “In the cold hatred which obsesses the soul of this amazing character, you feel the fierce passion of the devastating storms which sweep the bleak and lonely wastes of the Haworth district in the dreary winter months – an environment that, we know, made an indelible impression upon the sensitive spirit of the girl-genius pent, far from the warmth and colour of normal life, in her cheerless home.”

Thus the earliest attempt at putting the story on-screen establishes the dynamic between Cathy and Heathcliff. She is an elemental being, selfish, wilful, capricious and mentally-ill. He, grown from gipsy foundling to saturnine adulthood, is sinister, cruel, strong and desolate – deformed by the malevolence of man.

Thirty years after the Olivier/Oberon version came an attempt with Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff and Anna Calder-Marshall as Cathy. Seen today, it struggles to compete with its illustrious forebear: Dalton is far too handsome and well-spoken to manifest Heathcliff’s innate animalism; Calder-Marshall is insipid and lacks fire.

Crucially, it ends with Cathy’s death; unlike the 1920 version it cuts out a significant portion of the book for a ham-fisted finale that sees the wayward lovers dancing off through the heather as Heathcliff’s corpse lies still in the bitter wind. In 1992, casting director turned producer Mary Selway hired documentary filmmaker Peter Kosminsky to do a most audacious thing: make a new version and capture the whole story.

Telling two stories over a generation was the most daunting aspect of the project – that and casting the leads. In a still contentious decision, Selway and Kosminsky chose newcomer Ralph Fiennes for Heathcliff and – horror! – French actress Juliette Binoche as Cathy.

The scope of the story meant that the screenplay, by Irish writer Anne Devlin, encompassed 27 turbulent years – from spring 1775 when the 12-year-old Heathcliff enters the Earnshaw household, until his death in 1802. Devlin also introduced an eerie prologue and epilogue in which the figure of Emily Brontë, played in an uncredited cameo by Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor, opens and closes the film.

“Cathy just isn’t a modern part,” said Kosminsky. “She’s capricious and sexually manipulative. She flaunts her sexuality and she uses it. She’s precocious and she’s elemental. And she shines like a kind of beacon in this tiny, isolated moorland community of 200-odd years ago. She’s the kind of character who comes along maybe once in ten generations in a place like that.”

Much maligned, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (as the film was advertised) is actually the closest in style, mood and atmosphere to the novel. It is underpinned by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ghostly score. Fiennes’s magnificent performance is soaked in dread and vengeance; Binoche, wavering accent aside, is more than acceptable as the wild child of the heather. Kosminsky succeeded in his quest: to make the movie a visual metaphor for the choice between head and heart.

Now Wuthering Heights has spawned yet another bastard child. Andrea Arnold’s 2011 attempt at the book boasts non-actors who give non-performances in a film utterly without heart or soul.

It’s resemblance to the novel is merely accidental, such is Arnold’s deliberate attempt to pare down dialogue and plot to the barest minimum, giving her cast only landscape and weather to inform their performances.

Rumours from the set whispered of a filmmaker struggling to make sense of the parallel storylines, and lacking direction. Peppered with profanity and racial epithets, it demands from audiences an in-depth knowledge of the novel, its sub-plots and diversions, and delivers only a skeletal representation of a mighty tale.

Arnold’s insubstantial vision is bolstered by the camerawork of Robbie Ryan. The film has been described as a bold experiment – a new vision for a new generation. Yet whilst the peasant hill farm locale of the Earnshaws’ home is suitably bleak and meagre, the scorching heat of the love between the principals is never present. Only Kaya Scodelario, as the older Cathy, offers hints of what might have been. It is, at its simplest, of an awfulness that bends the mind.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is an exemplar of gothic romance. It is a story of naked emotion, madness, obsession, death, revenge, the supernatural and, at its end, redemption.

Few films have managed to authentically recreate such ingredients. Kosminsky, Fiennes and Binoche came closest. Said Mary Selway in 1992: “You have to honour the book and honour the writer’s intention of what she wanted to achieve in the book but make that in film terms. The story absolutely lends itself to a miniseries – the size of it is so vast – but it needs the largeness of the screen filled with the Yorkshire moors.”

Wuthering Heights is indeed a big story, maybe even the biggest in fiction. It is pure. Filmmakers should consider that when next they attempt to scale this Everest of novels.

Wuthering Heights (15) is released on Friday.