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Friday, February 5, 2010

OK, So Now I Get It...

When I first read Emily Bronte's dark novel Wuthering Heights, I was very young, too young really to understand the nuances of a passionate, all-consuming obsession. And, Ozark born though I was, I got completely lost in who was related to whom and how. Once I get past first cousins, my brain shuts down.

It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I watched the 1992 film starring Ralph Fiennes (Heathcliff) and Juliette Binoche (Cathy Earnshaw/Catherine Linton). Though I still have to think really hard to get everyone placed in the familial relationships, the story itself comes clear. And what a tale it is.

Ralph Fiennes is a properly intense and brooding Heathcliff, obsessed with his adopted sister Cathy. There are nuances to this dark character that Fiennes does not attain, but the cold, vengeful man thwarted in his possession of the highborn Cathy is clearly drawn. However, though the director (Peter Kosminsky) plays the unkempt hair and clothing for wildness, he falls short of capturing the "gypsy" that Heathcliff is supposed to be.

The dual role of Catherine/Cathy is played tolerably by Juliette Binoche and her visual presence helps us believe that she would be the object of Heathcliff's obsession. The scenes from their youth are particularly well-done and lay the foundation for our acceptance of the crucial line spoken by Cathy when she demurs her coming marriage to another man: "I am Heathcliff."

Soul mates, I'll buy.

But she falls short of the wild young thing in Bronte's story. Instead, she portrays a somewhat spoiled young woman who lets vanity set her path. What should seem ingenuous translates to shallow on the screen. It is in the characterization of Catherine, the daughter, that she shows strength.

Cathy Earnshaw bonds soul to soul with the unkempt "gypsy" child her father brings home to Wuthering Heights, the family manor. Her brother, Hindley, does not, and when his father dies, Hindley lets Heathcliff stay on as a common laborer. Hindley marries and his wife dies in childbirth, causing him to turn to drink. Meanwhile Catherine marries a rich neighbor, Edgar Linton. Heathcliff disappears in misery (in this movie, misery is what he does best) to reappear some time later, mysteriously wealthy and in possession of Hindley's debts.

Heathcliff takes Wuthering Heights from Hindley, declares undying love to Cathy, and then marries her sister-in-law, Isabella. Hindley dies and Heathcliff collects his son, Hareton, and promptly demotes the boy to Heathcliff's old lowly position. Revenge is sweet. Cathy pines away and dies after giving birth to a girl, Catherine. Heathcliff's wife, Isabella, gives birth to a sickly child, Linton (why the author kept repeating names is incomprehensible to me.) and dies. Now Heathcliff is set to inherit the estate of his rival, once his rival dies--which he does, conveniently, but not before his daughter (Catherine) marries Heathcliff's son (Linton) who also dies. Heathcliff makes everyone miserable, is finally haunted by Cathy, and dies.

With everyone else dead, Catherine the widowed daughter of Cathy marries her cousin Hareton, the son of her mother's brother. A good Ozark ending. And the movie preserves every twist in this contorted mess. Dare I say the book is better?

Nonetheless, this is an well-made movie, a good candidate for high school English classes struggling with the convoluted plot and intensity of Bronte's novel. In this day of Internet Stalkers, young people are probably more acquainted with obsession than I was as a naive young girl, and the central theme carries both the movie and the book.

But for sheer clarity of plot, the movie is the window to the tale.