FILM / Heights and depths

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The gothic is the single literary style that has had most effect on popular culture. Its influence on film imagery extends far beyond the horror genre. There aren't many rock videos that don't have even a whiff of the Gothic about them, and an entire category of popular music, heavy metal, owes all its moods and preoccupations to the Gothic. All of which means that a film-maker trying to unearth a mother lode of Gothic romance after so much strip- mining is asking for trouble. No film is less likely to get its modest due than Peter Kosminsky's new Wuthering Heights (U).

Some of the trouble could have been avoided. Introducing the story in the person of Emily Bronte herself, the singer Sinead O'Connor says, 'Take care not to smile at any part of it.' O'Connor has shown acting talent in a small part in the Irish film Hush-A-Bye Baby, but her appearance here, warning against smiles, is likely to raise one. Wearing a hooded cloak straight out of The French Lieutenant's Woman, her big Tweety- Pie eyes set off not by her trademark crop but by ringlets, she wanders round a burnt out ruin of surpassing grimness, and for all the conviction of her intonation she can't get the film off to the start it needs. Casting O'Connor as Emily Bronte in a biopic might actually turn into a triumph, but in a cameo that shouldn't be there in the first place she can do nothing.

There's worse to come. Peter Kosminsky's background is in documentary and drama-documentary (he directed Shoot To Kill for television), and he seems perversely determined to show that he has blood red enough for fiction. So Ryuichi Sakamoto's overripe score is given free rein, and Kathy's reappearance as a spirit - to claim Heathcliff - is well over the top. Two branches smash window panes at the Heights with Schwarzenegger force, and then turn into dead- white hands, grasping the arms of Lockwood, the hapless new tenant of the Grange.

The single unqualified advantage that the new version has over William Wyler's 1939 film is that it tells the whole story, instead of stopping after the death of Kathy. It also uses North Yorkshire locations, but that is a mixed blessing. It looks very self- conscious to have Kathy and Heathcliff conversing on a bizarre limestone formation that resembles the magnified involutions of a brain and, when Heathcliff prophesies Kathy's future by the weather, the sudden appearance of a storm, however true to conditions on the Moors, comes comically pat.

Having the full story, though, in Anne Devlin's screenplay, really does make a difference. It could hardly be clearer that, in its full working out, Wuthering Heights is the prototype for every generational soap opera ever made. This resemblance, which is thematic (mysterious origins, sudden fortunes, schemes of revenge carried down the years), is sometimes made comically visual in the film. Over the 27 years of family history that we see on screen, Janet McTeer's Ellen Dean changes not a whit as the generations ripen and decay around her, but no one enquires about her beauty secrets. Meanwhile Hareton Earnshaw matures in the twinkling of an eye from a child into a hunk (Jason Riddington) who looks as if he should be cruising babes on a California beach.

And yet Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, to give it its full title - actually has a fair amount going for it. Bronte's use of the Gothic properties was somehow both sophisticated and unselfconscious, in a way that no director can hope to match, but nothing can stop Heathcliff and Kathy being great feasts for actors who are willing to gorge on them.

Ralph Fiennes makes a demonic Heathcliff, his startlingly blue eyes the only concession to a matinee audience. This performance reminds us that early reviewers of the book were not wrong, when they wondered at the morbidity of its romanticism. On his first appearance Fiennes wears a long coat of the sort more associated with spaghetti westerns than Yorkshire Moors, and the hint of a moral brutality is well borne out thereafter. Though Fiennes gives Heathcliff glints of tenderness and self- knowledge, there is no suggestion here of natural nobility. If only Heathcliff's scenes with Ellen Dean didn't have an unintended undercurrent of comedy - the broodiest brooder of all time being snapped at for staring or being told to eat his food while it's hot.

Juliette Binoche was cast as Kathy after a search that the film-makers fancifully compare with the search for Scarlett O'Hara. But in fact Scarlett traverses a narrow and petulant emotional range, compared with Kathy. Scarlett even in adversity retains something of the spoilt child, while Kathy even at her most infantile is a free spirit - than which there is nothing more dangerous. Binoche acquits herself generally well. When Kathy returns from her first stay with the Lintons, she is both intoxicated by her new finery and also looking for somebody to join her in laughing at it. As she advances on Heathcliff she means him nothing but good. She has no thought that her new connection means the end of the old complicity, but when things go wrong she wouldn't think of explaining it to him.

Binoche rises to Kathy's great speech about Heathcliff being like the rocks, a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Rather mystifyingly, the director chooses at this crucial point of the plot not to show Heathcliff leaving after he has heard Kathy's disparagement of him, and before the declaration of love that follows.

Other omissions are more logical. When in the story an apparently self-possessed woman allows her wishes to be overridden, the film simply chooses not to show that particular moment. So Ellen Dean gives in off-screen to Heathcliff's demand to see Kathy one more time, and Catherine Linton assents off-screen to a marriage that is none of her wanting.

Catherine Linton, Kathy's daughter, is also played by Juliette Binoche with blonde hair and blue contact lenses. It is in one of this character's speeches that the actress's English accent is at its shakiest, and for a few moments she is more Catherine Clouseau than Linton. However much it would cost to redub the moment where she tells Heathcliff she wants to go 'herm', it would be money well spent.

But at its heart, this version of Wuthering Heights is not actually a disgrace to the original or the earlier film. Encroached on by video imagery on one side and by soap opera plotting on the other, there is still a little wildness in this much visited tract of romancing, and from time to time the actors bring it up fresh.

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