Wuthering Heights, ITV1
The Choir: Unsung Town, BBC2
Tom Hardy's demonic portrait of Brontë's anti-hero dominates the screen
Sunday 06 September 2009
As a rule, I avoid costume dramas so far as housemates and Sunday evenings allow. Too often, they've eviscerated my favourite authors, replacing emotional nuances with ponderous exposition and frou-frou nostalgia.
And then there's the utter predictability of the adaptation choices to contend with: this autumn, say hello to the umpteenth version of Emma. Nevertheless, I wanted to give Wuthering Heights a go for two reasons. First, it was written by Peter Bowker, the man behind June's exemplary Iraq War drama Occupation; and second, it starred Tom Hardy, the rising star with the pillow lips of Jolie, the quicksilver intensity of young Brando, and a fine record in playing the dangerously deranged.
So, did I eat my words? Well, chew on them a little, maybe. With its intricately detailed narrative, hopping back and forth through time, Emily Brontë's moorland saga is a difficult fit for the screen – indeed, the 1939 Olivier film avoided the issue only by paring it down to its melodramatic basics: the tragic relationship between gypsy orphan Heathcliff and his forbidden soulmate Cathy.
Bowker was less brutal in his changes – despite, quite literally, taking a knife to the book while re-ordering it. The opening, jumping forward to the fates of the star-crossed lovers' children, may have confused this reviewer, who briefly assumed he was watching episode two, but mostly the action flowed grippingly and coherently.
More importantly, Bowker remained faithful to Brontë's tone, not just to her story: hate was as sharply delineated as love, and its dramatic impetus was stoked as much by Heathcliff's cold-blooded vengefulness as it was by his and Cathy's hot-blooded passion. In this respect, Bowker was brilliantly served by Hardy, who refused to play the romantic hero card, notwithstanding his standard-issue tresses. One part smirking malevolence to two parts laser-eyed psychosis, he treated detestable step-brother Hindley to a full-throttle head-smashing that could have been an out-take from his other recent TV outing, gangland drama The Take.
Perhaps, though, Hardy was also part of the problem: his demonic magnetism left everyone else in the shade, not least Charlotte Riley's insipid Cathy, who lacked the heroine's infamous "double character" of untrammelled sensuality and social ambition. Meanwhile, as the drama drew to its conclusion, so Bowker increasingly struggled to cram in events: you have to feel sorry for the actor playing Heathcliff's son, Linton, in a hair's breadth of screentime, whose life and death passed without so much as a sentimental bedside exchange. The Hardy boy done good, then, but as a reflection of Brontë's novel, it was still too much like televisual York Notes.
From Gothic darkness into Gospel-inflected light, Tuesday saw the return of chipper choirmaster Gareth Malone. In The Choir, Malone inspired unruly schoolkids to locate their inner choristers; now in The Choir: Unsung Town, he's hoping to do the same with a deprived Watford estate. With X-Factor auditions in full swing, his proselytising mission appeared especially novel. Is he, you gasped, really suggesting that singing has value in itself? That vocal chords aren't just a God-given vehicle for public glorification/humiliation? And that wasn't the only turn up for the books. Viewers of the recent Duchess on the Estate will have been shocked to note that (a) not all estates are wholly mired in squalor and despair – some people were actually proud to live on this one – and (b) engaging with the working classes doesn't require a degree in insufferable patronage.
Hell, even the narrative arc was askew. At the end of this week's opener, Malone's new, 200-strong choir performed in the local shopping precinct. Afterwards, members appeared proud, bonded, and on a path to self-fulfilment; but where were the requisite disasters and disappointments, tears and tantrums, foreshadowing that miraculous final-act turnaround? In the reality TV bear pit, such unlaboured gentility is as radical a notion as Brian Blessed hitting high C.
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