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TV REVIEW : Bronte's Lovers Brood Again in 'Heights'

December 05, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What a week it has become for adaptations of classic 19th-Century English novels.

Tonight, cable's TNT airs the U.S. premiere of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," with Ralph Fiennes starring as the primitive, pagan Heathcliff. That follows last night's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production on CBS of Thomas Hardy's "The Return of the Native."

True to the novels, never has the television screen seemed so full of brooding heaths and rippling moors. Both movies, British productions shot on craggy, forbidding English landscapes, fully exploit the novels' sense of place. The difference is that in "Wuthering Heights," the movie mirrors the feeling that you're not in the real world at all but between heaven and hell--which, of course, is exactly where those tragic, tortured lovers, Catherine (Juliette Binoche) and Heathcliff, abide.

Arguably the most faithful of the four attempts to turn Bronte's nightmare romance into a movie, this version, directed by newcomer Peter Kosminsky and adapted by Anne Devlin, happily covers the entire book (spanning 30 years and three families at the end of the 18th Century).

The famous 1939 movie, with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, falsely concluded at the point where Catherine died, halfway through the novel, totally ignoring the working out of Heathcliff's revenge against the young heirs of his despised Earnshaw and Linton families. (The other "Wuthering Heights" movies, both disappointments, were by director Luis Bunuel in 1954 and director Robert Fuest in 1970.)

The common deficiency in these four productions is that they dramatize altogether a much less fierce, savage love affair than that created by Bronte, a quiet, insular woman with a remarkably artistic imagination. Subsequently, Heathcliff and Catherine's redemption through death is impossible to convey cinematically.

At least in this newest movie, the tone is personal enough to suggest that, psychologically, if the author Bronte can't have Heathcliff, no one can.

This, by the way, is the Fiennes performance, in a production shot in 1992 for a theatrical release in Britain, that prompted Steven Spielberg to cast him as the evil commandant in "Schindler's List." Torn between love and hate, he's demonic enough here that when he slaps Catherine to the floor, he touches the animal/beast by way of the mistreated orphan youth whom we first see.

In contrast, Binoche's Catherine appears to be a victim of the movie's editing. Her wild, passionate, willful side is muted, throwing off her chemistry with Fiennes. Her deathbed scene is terribly truncated (it runs to 60 pages in the book), and she often seems more giggly than possessed. In short, it's not clear why Heathcliff would fall for her.

Otherwise, the script follows the novel in surprising ways. Bronte's moody opening on a stormy night is kept intact, hurling you like a stranger into the story. And the book's unusual point of view, told from the all-seeing eye of the loyal housekeeper, Ellen Dean (the wonderful Janet McTeer), is subtly maintained in a medium that doesn't naturally lend itself to a first-person point of view.

* "Wuthering Heights" airs today at 5 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. on TNT.

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