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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Classic Film Review: Wuthering Heights (1939)

This adaptation of the Emily Bronte novel stars Laurence Olivier as Heathcliffe with Merle Oberon as Cathy, David Niven as Edgar Linton and Flora Robson as Ellen. It only tells half the story of the novel, up to Cathy's death and misses out everything to do with the children. It works well, centring Heathcliffe and Cathy in a somewhat compact adaptation.

It maintains the frame narrative, the story being told by Ellen, which allows for the passages of time to be easily glossed over. The childhood scenes are surprisingly well acted with Rex Downing doing an excellent job as the young Heathcliffe. Once Olivier takes over, the role becomes necessarily more nuanced and it is a very good portrayal, faltering at times. I was less impressed with Merle Oberon overall - her confrontation scenes with Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) late in the film are more memorable than most of her scenes with Olivier. The character is, of course, a difficult one to like but there's depth missing from Oberon's performance. For me, the standout stars were two of the supporting cast - Flora Robson as Ellen and Hugh Williams as the older Hindley Earnshaw, drunk and bitter with Heathcliffe.

Something this adaptation does exceptionally well is generate atmosphere. Although filmed in America, the outdoor scenes do have the sense of wild Yorkshire moorland. The lighting is perfect and the direction just subtle enough. I think the score, slightly overpowering at times, assisted in scenes where not a lot was said but a great deal was conveyed.

Overall, this is an excellent - if curtailed - adaptation of a very complex book. Olivier was a good Heathcliffe but credit for the atmosphere of this film must go to all involved.

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