Paramount’s U.K.-lensed “Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights” is a by-the-numbers telling of the Emily Bronte classic that’s as cool as a Yorkshire moor. Weakened by a wobbly central perf by Gallic thesp Juliette Binoche as Cathy (both mother and daughter), pic looks set to be a hard sell in English-speaking markets. Version world preems at the Edinburgh Intl. Film Fest Saturday.
Third big-screen outing of the Bronte yarn lacks the visual stylization and intense performances of the 1939 Merle Oberon-Laurence Olivier classic and the believability of the 1970 British remake (with Anna Calder-Marshall and young Timothy Dalton as a fine Heathcliff). For the record, there’s also a talky Mexican reworking, directed by Luis Bunuel in 1954.
Present item, first out of the Paramount British Pictures hopper, serves up the full work (unlike the truncated 1939 version) but misses out on atmosphere and passion.
Anne Devlin’s script does a workmanlike job of compressing the novel into 105 minutes, inventing a female voiceover narrator and framing the story as one mega-flashback. But helming by Peter Kosminsky, in his feature bow after an award-winning string of political documentaries, doesn’t add much to the narrative.
Controversial casting of Binoche as the Yorkshire lass is a major deficit. Fine in French-lingo pix and even in the Czechoslovakia-set, English-language “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” she doesn’t cut it in such echt-British fare as this.
Halting in her delivery, and with an accent that’s every which way, she misses the spontaneity and feeling at the heart of the twin roles. Her dialogue also shows signs of having been trimmed: the Brit cast does most of the talking when she’s around.
Screen newcomer Ralph Fiennes makes a good stab at the Heathcliff part, more successful in the later scenes as the embittered power player than in the early ones as the glowering bad-boy hero. But it’s a one-way contest with Binoche, and precious few sparks fly.
Pic starts promisingly with Lockwood (Paul Geoffrey), narrator in the novel but not here, arriving at Wuthering Heights and getting a cool reception from its owner, Heathcliff (Fiennes). That night, he thinks he sees a ghost resembling Catherine, daughter-in-law of Heathcliff.
Cue flashback to Heathcliff’s youth when, as a mysterious orphan, he was brought to the house by its owner Earnshaw (John Woodvine). Treated as a servant , he grows up with Earnshaw’s perky daughter Cathy, but when the adult Cathy (a brunet Binoche) marries into the family of neighboring rich folks the Lintons, he plots long-term revenge.
Marrying and abusing Linton daughter Isabella (Sophie Ward), he still hangs around Cathy. When she dies, he later marries off his son to Cathy’s grown-up daughter Catherine (a blond Binoche), now sole heir to the Linton estate. Downbeat ending sees most main players dead, as per novel.
Sprawling story, set across two generations, moves at quite a clip to get everything in. Pacing, as well as look, is more akin to an edited-down TV miniseries than a developed feature.
Filmmakers seem overbound by fidelity to the novel and unwilling to take risks: a late-on fantasy sequence reuniting Heathcliff with the dead Cathy has some of the romantic panache badly missing elsewhere.
Fiennes plays up the redeemed, social-outcast side of the Heathcliff character to good effect, when the script gives him a chance.
Binoche, often unclearly looped, is bland. Best of the supports is Janet McTeer, as the fully drawn servant Mrs. Dean. Ward is in only briefly as Isabella but is OK.
Production design by Brian Morris and costuming by James Acheson are both detailed but treated in unatmospheric style by Mike Southorn’s conservative lensing. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s romantic main theme cries out for fuller development.
Exteriors were shot on authentic Yorkshire, northern England, locations, with studio work at Shepperton.