CINEMA / Too hot for Hollywood

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The Independent Culture
HOW MUCH did a Yorkshire spinster of 1847 know about sex? Quite a bit more than a Hollywood director of 1992. Who can read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights without thrilling to its brute physicality - especially in that meeting just before Cathy's death: 'Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive: in fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. On my approaching, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog . . . ' In pale imitation, director Peter Kosminsky allows Heathcliff to sidle up to a silk-lined bed where his Cathy sleepily reclines. They exchange the mellow, slurping kisses beloved of U-certificate romance. Fade out. Perhaps they go further, but given their general lassitude, it seems unlikely.

From the first shots of Sinead O'Connor as Emily Bronte, underacting and overdressed in a chic blue velvet cloak, as she roams the crenellated monstrosity that has replaced a humble farmhouse in the set-designer's imagination, it becomes clear that this Wuthering Heights is a botched job. It's a pick'n'mix of Gothic motifs, Gainsborough fashions, clashing accents and limp lines: 'Come in and finish your dinner,' Hareton wheedles to a burnt- out Heathcliff; 'Eat your soup while it's hot,' Nelly Dean encourages.

Of course the 1939 version was ridiculous too, but it did have a style of its own - sure-footed Thirties camp, full of arch posturing and spirited declamation. And it also had the tensely understated sexuality of Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. It didn't attempt to be Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, but cut the novel in half and got a proper scriptwriter. Kosminsky's much- vaunted fidelity to the text is the fidelity of a man without his own vision. Many vital images - from Lockwood dragging Cathy's ghostly hand across broken glass until the blood spurts, to Heathcliff hanging Isabella's dog - are too hot for him to handle.

Other things that he keeps would be better cut. And though he tries to follow the novel's vast and circular structure, he short-circuits it by not forcing his actors to grow, develop or age, and returning Cathy, unchanged except for wig and lenses, as her own daughter.

But his biggest mistake is in the casting. Only one motor drives Wuthering Heights: the irrational connection, part physical, part poetic, between Cathy, Heathcliff and the moors. Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche come from different worlds; they strain for contact in chiaroscuro interiors or - once or twice - in tamed landscapes, uncomfortable in their stylised lines and costumes. They look super, of course, especially Binoche, with her wild hair and sensual mouth at odds with her little-girl face. But although much will be made of her gloopy French vowels, it's not so much the accent that's the problem, more the chilling effect all that voice-coaching has had on her acting. She plods through long speeches with knitted brows, listening to her own voice, jolting from word to word. It's very far from the spirited kookiness she displayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and worlds apart from Cathy's chatter, her childish brio.

As for Fiennes, a recent recruit to the English stage, anyone who saw his pallid Troilus or creepy Edmund in last year's RSC productions knows how sadly he lacks inner hairiness. Loaded down with sheepskin, leather and greasy black locks, he seems afraid to act in case his natural, feline subtlety escapes. So he keeps to one tone, the growl, and one look, the glare, interspersed with the odd grimace or leer. No wonder the audience hooted when Nelly Dean puts her foot down: 'Do stop staring into space, Mr Heathcliff]'

And then there are the moors. Hollywood did better with its flimsy sets than Kosminsky does with the real thing. He seems afraid to make full use of these landscapes, their weather and colours and space; and his actors' relationship to them is tentative at best. In the only alfresco love scene, Heathcliff presents Cathy with the moors as a plaything: 'Listen to the trees]' he says, and out fly a few crows. 'They're calling your name]' It's a piece

of whimsy as misplaced as the final

line from Sinead O'Connor - 'And

countryfolk say they walk here still' - patronising, distanced, utterly at odds with the plangent sincerity of the book.

'Listen to the trees]' is a line that pops up in another film this week. Spoken by a Native American to an FBI investigator, it elicits a rather more sparky response: 'I flew in from somewhere called the 20th century.'

Michael Apted's Thunderheart is a punchy, pacy movie set in the late 1970s that attempts to explore the clash between America's ancient and modern values via the troubled conscience of Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer). Levoi is a self- hating half-Native FBI employee flown into an Indian reservation in South Dakota which has been ripped apart by insurgence. The FBI tries to use his background as a PR exercise; but at first Levoi's loathing of his background makes him unable to co-operate with the Natives. Gradually, of course, he gets won over by their deeper wisdom and sorrow, identifies with their cause and finally uncovers the wicked FBI plot to defraud them of their land.

The film has its problems. Now that Native Americans have been so emasculated, the film industry (here Robert De Niro's Tribeca productions) is happy to use them as repositories of gentle New Age mysticism. We get little tags of Sioux wisdom ('There's no word in Sioux for goodbye'), funny old wise men, Madonna-like mothers, picturesque pow-wows. And by taking one white man's conscience, rather than society, as the proper place for the struggle, the issues are drained of complexity. The central fight is for Val Kilmer's soul, not Indian rights, as evinced by the saccharine ending: 'If you ever need a place to come back to, to listen to the wind, we'll always be here,' says Native American Graham Greene to Kilmer as he gets in his car. A change of direction? Or the have-it- all mentality of a NatWest advert?

But Thunderheart portrays - almost despite itself - so much unfinished business, anger and heartbreak that it can't be dismissed out of hand. Against the slick control of old hands like Kilmer and Sam Shepard (as his boss), the Native Americans playing Native Americans sometimes push far enough into authenticity to be disturbing. What wins through is the evidence of the land: the plains of South Dakota all chopped about with pylons, rusting cars and shanty-town 'reservations' - 'Like the third world in the middle of America,' as Shepard observes.

Strictly Ballroom is a one-off. A slice of free-wheeling kitsch, it locks into the closed society of Australian ballroom dancing to give us the ultimate feel-good movie. Director Baz Luhrmann has created a style that's flash without being slick - toupees and feathers, sequins and glitter, salmon-pink lights on sweating skin - and steers neatly between send-up and sincerity. The skeletal plot centres on Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), not a rugby player but a Bruce Weberish hunk from a family of ballroom champs, who has a dream: to dance his own steps in the Pan Pacific Grand Prix. Helping him along is the Cinderella of the studio (Tara Morice), an acned Spanish beginner who finally hatches into a flamenco belle. The film has its longueurs, lurching into a frenetic finish, but the final love dance is a masterpiece of innocent froth.

'Wuthering Heights' (U): Empire (497 9999), MGM Fulham Rd (370 2636) & Shaftesbury Ave (836 6279), Whiteleys (792 3303), gen release. 'Thunderheart' (15): MGM Haymarket (839 1527), Fulham Rd (370 2636) & Tottenham Ct Rd (636 6148), gen release. 'Strictly Ballroom' (PG): Odeon West End (930 7615), Whiteleys (792 3303), etc. All nos 071.

Anthony Lane returns next week.