Wuthering Heights

AFI Rank: #73
Year Released: 1939
Director: William Wyler
Actors: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven

Wuthering Heights, set on film in 1939, is based on the only story we have from Emily Bronte. Set in the late 1700s to early 1800s, the story tells of the tragic love of Catherine and Heathcliff. It's set close to the same timeframe as the various Jane Austen novels (Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, etc.) so it's a bit of a surprise to see that this movie version is set with Civil War costumes. Apparently when the movie was filmed (the same year as Gone with the Wind) everyone was Civil-War-Happy and somehow the women all ended up in those fluffy dresses. To me that's an enormous shame, as I adore the outfits from the proper era.

We also only get half the story here. In the novel there is a whole second generation - Catherine's child, Heathcliff's child, etc. There is continuing epic trauma. But in this sanitized version, Heathcliff and Catherine barely kiss and they wander off in love hand-in-hand at the end. So the depth and emotion of the story is reined in quite a bit.

The three main actors are all of course brilliant and talented. But it's well known that Oberon and Olivier were quite unhappy with each other during the filming of this movie. So while the source material is phenomenal, some of the natural chemistry which is palpable in other movie versions isn't quite as high-octane here. Oberon, in her Gone-with-the-Wind dress, is a bit too cool. She is playing more of an Austen type of heroine, rather than the fire-for-blood Catherine. Yes, Austen and Bronte are often considered contemporaries. But as much as I adore Austen's stories immensely, they are a different style. Austen's characters have refinement and wit. Bronte's have a broiling passion they can barely contain.

Olivier is a genius. I love his characters. And, that being said, his character here is more a Darcy than a Heathcliff. There is brooding, but not the powerful rage and angst and volcanic desire for revenge that the book holds.

Certainly the movie is brilliant. It deserves its ranking of #73 on the AFI top 100. I love the story, and I love the actors. But I also think that other versions bring forth the fullness of the story, the intricacy of the characters, and the darkness of the souls that Bronte wrote about. I think they portray the time frame more accurately, rather than artificially putting the characters into Civil War outfits. So I highly recommend watching this, and appreciating it for what it offers. Be sure, too, though, to watch the other versions of Wuthering Heights and to read the book. See what Bronte really wrote.

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