Wuthering with Emily

fiennes as Heathcliff

I saw the Ralph Fiennes and Isabella Binoche Wuthering Heights (in which Binoche economically portrays both Cathys).  There are too many Wuthering Heightes to see so I won’t compare this film with any others, though I understand that it’s among the few, or perhaps the only one (?) that tells the entire story which makes me wonder how the others manage to tell only half the story, i.e. that concerning Heathcliff and Cathy Numero Uno.

I found the movie to be neither marvelous nor awful.  It’s somewhere in the middle, being somewhat long, though entertaining enough to watch.  Its cast delivers fine performances, and I agree with one anonymous internet reviewer of the film that Fiennes manages to become Heathcliff — indeed he provides an inner motivation that seems lacking in Bronte’s book at least until the final chapters. In contrast, by virtue of his successful identification with the character, Fiennes makes Heathcliff more dimensional, very mean and nasty but less diabolically sinister, and redeems the man even before his final curtain.  So all those qualities were good things.

What I find most lacking, though, in the translation from book to movie is the absence of Bronte’s peculiar narration. In the movie we’re given a substitute in the form of character Emily Bronte who appears briefly on screen and occasionally as voice-over, and I suppose her appearance is meant to lend the thing a book-like voice.  It does suggest that the screenwriter also sensed that the story’s narration is a force unto itself.  But the Bronte walk-on gesture does only heighten a striking difference between the book and the movie, one that separates the two as completely different kettles of fish. And the story is somewhat the poorer when Bronte’s narrative subtleties disappear.

In Bronte’s book, the housekeeper narrates the story and in a particularly compartmentalized and complicated way for we’re given her voice as part of a conversation between herself and a visitor named Lockwood.  She satisfies his desire to know the gossip on Heathcliff and thus Lockwood functions in a way as the reader’s proxy.  A few chapters later though, Lockwood interposes to say that he’ll give us the rest of the story himself, and that he’ll paraphrase his interlocutor the eye-witness/housekeeper and fellow participant Mrs. Dean whose testimony had erected one of the book’s several partitions. Lockwood’s hearsay forms another. And yet, they’re both the same voice still.  And yet they’re not.

Why Bronte devised this labyrinth of indirection is anybody’s guess. I ask myself what affect these frames have upon my own experience hearing the tale.  And I’m not sure what the effect was, but I do notice that I miss it in the more overtly “transparent” presentation of events that is seemingly made necessary by film.

So many of the other filmed Wutherings feature only a part of the story — its juiciest Cathy-Heathcliff aspect (?) whereas this one gave us the whole two generational, two Cathys, second romance version.  But what I’m wanting — certainly what I’m wondering about — is the possibility of a film that gives a form of Bronte’s subtle narrative partitioning.  At last, Ellen Dean — and even Mr. Lockwood — turn out to be characters in the drama.  Their presence matters hugely even though they are distant spectators of the story’s emo traumas.  In some manner, they are us. And their distance, their perspective and the force of their seemingly more mundane personalities give the tale a weight that I sorely missed in the film. I was almost a character myself in Bronte’s novel.  I’m just eating popcorn and watching in the film version.

Finding a way to bring that plodding texture back into the story, that frame that removes us from the lovers’ passions and causes us to feel the effects of the whole drama as it touches our own lives would be the sort of  challenge a dramatist could relish.  Perhaps some film maker of the future will attempt it — will understand and seek to grasp this other layer, the less obvious but powerful frame created out of “he said and she said.” In that instance we’d find ourselves seeing a movie in which we were ourselves almost parts.