For those understandably enamored of the 1939 Laurence Olivier-Merle Oberon version, this "Masterpiece Classic" retelling of "Wuthering Heights" does offer a few modern compensations, starting with an intense Tom Hardy as Heathcliff, who, along with Charlotte Riley's less-impressive Cathy, occupies the center of Emily Bronte's obsessive love quadrangle.
For those understandably enamored of the 1939 Laurence Olivier-Merle Oberon version, this “Masterpiece Classic” retelling of “Wuthering Heights” does offer a few modern compensations, starting with an intense Tom Hardy as Heathcliff, who, along with Charlotte Riley’s less-impressive Cathy, occupies the center of Emily Bronte’s obsessive love quadrangle. Writer Peter Bowker (“Blackpool”) has widened the lens to include the characters’ heirs, but the last hour of this 2½-hour production (presented in two unequal parts) lacks quite the wallop that part one delivers once it gets rolling.
The first 15 minutes or so, frankly, is a bit of a muddle, starting with Cathy’s grown daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Night), before flashing back to tell the elder generation’s story. (It doesn’t help that any effort to age the characters through makeup is virtually nonexistent, so the key players look 25 pretty much all the way through, even when they’re older.)
Beginning in the late 18th century, Bronte’s dark story centers on Cathy and her adopted brother Heathcliff, a poor Gypsy lad, who her blood brother Hindley (Burn Gorman) instantly resents and torments at every turn. Treated like a servant once his father dies, Heathcliff’s passion for Cathy is shaken when she is injured and ends up convalescing in the care of the aristocratic Edgar Linton (Andrew Lincoln), who soon proposes to her.
An angry Heathcliff flees, but he returns with a cryptic note on Cathy’s wedding day, and reveals himself later, having mysteriously won his fortune. Still powerfully drawn to Cathy and vice versa, he finally weds Linton’s sister Isabella (Rosalind Halstead), primarily as an act of spite after learning his beloved is pregnant.
Bowker and director Coky Giedroyc (who also oversaw “Masterpiece’s” upcoming “Oliver Twist”) capitalize on present-day latitude to incorporate more visceral elements into the story, including the depiction of Heathcliff’s cruelty toward the poor Isabella, a macabre scene that involves digging up a grave and Ruth Barrett’s percussive, jarringly modern score.
Yet while Hardy — with his brooding, deep-set eyes and perpetual scowl — is an extremely compelling presence (and also plays the sadistic Bill Sykes in “Twist”), Riley proves a less convincing object of that desire. Nor is the final act — despite its theme of undying love — the three-hankie affair that many will fondly remember, partly because the next generation proves relatively lackluster compared with the first.
For all that, it’s still an extremely handsome production, following “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” in what thus far looks to be a laudable season for the PBS showcase, embracing the slogan that something needn’t be black and white to feel like a classic.