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This 1967 BBC adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" was my first exposure to the famous (and sole) story by Emily Bronte, sister of Charlotte. I would have likely passed this production by altogether had it not been for the film's lead actor, a very young Ian McShane. In doing a bit of research on the novel and previous attempts at adapting it to television and film, I found that this adaptation had the distinction of being one of the longest, clocking it at a hair over three hours. The three major motion picture adaptations, all came at nearly 104 minutes exactly, and the more recent adaptation starring Tom Hardy, produced for public television falls in between those film versions and this one, at 142 minutes. After finishing this adaptation, it became very clear that material cut from these shorter films, end up making this, I dare say, epic production a much more faithful telling of Bronte's novel.
Divided into four, 45 minute episodes, "Wuthering Heights" spans roughly three decades telling the story of Heathcliff (Ian McShane), one of the most complex and mysterious characters I've witnessed put on screen. Heathcliff comes into the lives of the Earnshaws as a young Gypsy boy, found by the patriarch of the family on his return home to his wife and two children, Hindley and Catherine. The family is instantly opposed to the addition of this feral looking child, and over the course of Heathcliff's young life, he is the victim of constant abuse from Hindley and the snickering Catherine. The first installment in this adaptation sets the stage for the following three episodes by unfolding the events of the Earnshaw children's lives as late teens. If there is a single weak link in the entire production it is here, with the principal cast failing to convincingly play 16 and 17 year olds. Angela Scoular's portrayal of a young Catherine is almost unsettling, as she clearly looks 10 years older than the character she is playing.
This misstep winds up hurting the beginning of the second episode in which Heathcliff returns from a self-imposed exile to unfold an intricate, chilling plot of revenge on not only the life of former tormentor Hindley, but also the family Catherine married into on his absence. McShane manages to find a firm hold on the character in these latter episodes, but it remains hard to convincingly understand why he has any feelings for Catherine in the first place. Whether it due to Bronte's original creation of the Catherine character or Scoular's shrill performance, the viewer will fight the urge to yell at Heathcliff to leave these miserable people and make his own life.
Fortunately, once Heathcliff firmly sinks his talons into key figures at both Wuthering Heights (his family home) and Thrushcross Grange (the home of Catherine's husband Edgar Linton), the viewer finds out how delicious such a vile tale can be. McShane slowly transforms from the heartsick, object of pity, to an obsessed, morally absent, master manipulator. It's never quite clear whether Heathcliff's actions are the result of a cunning psychopath or simply a man consumed by his own sorrow, driven to madness. At his worst, McShane's performance shows shades of the fierce intensity that would be more fully developed as Al Swearengen on "Deadwood." However, I dare say Heathcliff is a far more frightening presence than Swearengen, despite the latter's known proclivities to murder.
Heathcliff's manipulation of anyone and everyone remind me of one of modern television's most infamous soap opera villain's, Victor Newman. In fact, the plot of love, betrayal, power and revenge that populates "Wuthering Heights" shows up on a regular basis in the modern soap opera. They are timeless themes, and here, they are played out in full, even up until the final, chilling scene. I defy anyone who hasn't read nor seen an adaptation of this story to be able to guess what Heathcliff will do next; there is no depth to which he won't sink; using his sick, dying son as a pawn in his mad game is just one of many sins he commits.
Peter Sasdy completes the puzzle as director of this adaptation and manages to spice things up with some small, but effective filming techniques. I didn't expect much in terms of camera work or editing on a BBC television production from over 40 years ago, but there are moments in "Wuthering Heights" that makes one wonder how polished a production Sasdy could have unleashed on the big screen. Despite the shaky performances in the first episode involving Heathcliff and Catherine's stunning, quick forming romance, these scenes remain memorable due to Sasdy's variety of camera shots. His work ranges from close-ups of the couple sharing intimate conversation, to wide shots where the duo remain a speck on the barren landscape, conveying the sense that at this moment, they are alone in their love. Heathcliff's return from exile is an additional highlight, shot first person with each of our principal characters reactions being shown raw and unembellished. Mostly though, Sasdy knows how to frame characters in a scene and use close-ups to add emotional or thematic emphasis.
"Wuthering Heights" is by no means a mainstream production. It's considerable length, and slow, unfolding plot is likely to fall flat on mainstream tastes. However, for fans of slow burns and character studies, it's a treat to say the least. I can't say this is a 100% faithful adaptation, as I've yet to read the novel, but it's a compelling enough production that has instilled great interest in me to check out this legendary tale. In short, it's good, well made entertainment.
The 1.33:1 transfer retains the original aspect ratio this 1967 BBC television production. Interior shots are the most visually appealing, although like the rest of the program suffer from noticeable print damage and varying detail levels. Contrast levels also vary quite a bit, most noticeably in the scenes on location. It is nearly impossible to pick out any bit of detail when characters are a moderate distance from the camera and in daylight scenes, some shots look overexposed. It's worth noting that despite some noticeable telecine wobble during the opening and closing credits, the vast majority of the program flows smoothly. To sum it up nicely, for a 40 year old British TV production it is better than expected, but could have used some remastering.
The English mono soundtrack features a noticeable, soft background hiss, a likely reminder of the equipment used to film the program. Voices are for the most part clear, although sound quality takes a nosedive during outdoor scenes. There is bit of distortion when the occasional shrill scream or thin gust of wind rips through an open window. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
"Wuthering Heights" is a thoroughly entertaining, dark melodrama. Despite starting off on a bad foot, the production conveys a great sense of loss and dread. Ian McShane's portrayal of Heathcliff is by and large the reason this adaptation is seeing the light of day, but McShane is not alone. He's aided by a generally solid, competent supporting cast and an adapted screenplay that never showed any true flaws. Spotty video and audio aside, this is a solid DVD release. Recommended.
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