Heights 0 passion
Out on the wiley. windy moors, Heathcliff and Cathy come back to life in a new film version of Emily Bront'e’s Wuthering Heights. Alan Morrison talks to director Peter Kosminsky and actor Ralph Fiennes.
‘This was a total no-win situation for me,’ sighs Peter Kosminsky. ‘It’s a book which people feel passionately about, and a fair proportion of them feel that it’s unadaptable anyway. On the other hand, there is a group of people who know and love the original Wyler film; and because it bears no relation to the novel, they’re going to feel disappointed with whatever more faithful adaptation one comes up with.’
It seems that Kosminsky, acclaimed director of award-winning TV documentaries, is steeling himself for a stormy reception for his feature debut, Wuthering Heights. And indeed, in true Bronté-esque fashion, heavy black clouds are gathering on the horizon, or at least in some of the less forgiving review sections of UK magazines and newspapers.
Nevertheless, Wuthering Heights is a visually stunning movie, a welcome break from the British tradition of stuffy costume dramas and verbose literary adaptations. There is no running across the moors, calling aloud each other’s names and meeting in a tender embrace in this Wuthering Heights. That belongs to the mythology built up around a frequently misrepresented book. This version bravely follows Heathcliff‘s story to the bitter end, unlike the romantic melodrama of the famous Olivier-Oberon version, which has its climax in the death of Cathy — an event which occurs barely halfway through the novel. Compared with that 1939 attempt, even Kate Bush’s Top Of The Pops screeching was more faithful: ‘How could you leave mthen I needed to possess you?/I hated you, I loved you too.’ It is this duality, this depiction of selﬁsh, unrelenting love that will poison the pens of stubborn critics while simultaneously satisfying the tear ducts of many paying members of the audience.
As if this wasn’t enough, Kosminsky has also caught flak for his casting. While praise for the satumine good looks of RSC actor Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff has been more or less unanimous, eyebrows
have been raised at the very thought of having a French actress, Juliette Binoche, play a classic English literary heroine. In many eyes, the director is doubly damned for deciding to have Binoche appear as both Cathy and her danghter Catherine.
‘I don’t believe this is a romantic love story. I believe it’s a really bleak, violent story where obsessive emotion is destructive and selfish and
tragic.’ Ralph Fiennes
‘There is a scene,’ explains Kosminksy, ‘when Catherine kneels before Heathcliff and says “You’re a cruel man, but you’re not a fiend”. It was for that scene, and almost for that scene alone, that I was determined the same actress should play both parts — although in the book there is very little physical resemblance between Cathy and Catherine. I wanted Heathcliff to look down at the face he loved more than anything, which would make his dilemma and his pain infinitely more acute.’
Pain is very much at the heart of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff, the maltreated gypsy orphan who loses the love of his life to the civilised Edgar Linton, is driven to revenge by his pain, finding release only in causing a greater level ofsuffering for others. He creates a maelstrom of hate that takes its toll on everyone in this self-destructive, almost incestuous community where there is no release from inner torment, even in death. Heathcliff and Cathy are not simple, romantic characters by any genre definition; Bronte creates two very unsympathetic leads, two sides of the same scarred coin.
‘Cathy is not an especially likeable person,’ agrees Kosminsky, ‘not a
lovable rogue at all. There are moments when you see there are other depths to her, but in fact most of the time she seems shallow, capricious, manipulative. Vivacious, yes, but self-centred too. Juliette is of the school of acting that submerge themselves into that characterisation so that she became many of those things during the period of filming. She isn’t a comfortable person to work with, I’m happy to say, because I don’t think a comfortable person could have played Cathy.’
This is a story that is won or lost on the success of the central pairing and, fortunately, Binoche and Fiennes do capture that sense of spontaneous emotion that may have eluded bigger name stars. ‘On their first meeting,’ says Kosminsky, ‘Ralph just reddencd due to this real spark between them. I don’t know if it was emotional, sexual, whatever, but there was something between them, without question. They didn’t have an easy relationship; they weren’t sitting arm in arm in the corner of the set chatting away about this and that; they had very little to do with each other offset. But when they came together in front of the camera — perhaps it was that wariness - something gelled.’
‘She is incredible, an extraordinary personality, an uncompromising perfectionist,’ adds Fiennes, ‘and that was very stimulating to work with. My experience in front ofa camera is very minimal, so I was a bit in awe ofJuliette when I met her. She made me more aware of the things you have to consider.’
While Binoche’s star is very much in the ascendant both in France and abroad, Kosminsky may well have found in Fiennes not only a fine actor, but also a swoon-worthy pin-up to rival the best of them. A RADA graduate who has trodden the boards ofthe National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, he came to the
demanding film role of Heathcliff with only the television experience ofplayingTE. Lawrence in the Puttnam-produced A Dangerous Man to fall back on.
‘I don’t believe this is a romantic love story,’ he admits. ‘I believe it’s a really bleak, violent story where obsessive emotion is destructive and selfish and tragic. I think it all comes from pain, really— pain turned into anger and hatred.’
Back to that notion of pain again. But while the characters try to internalise their excessive emotion. it is bursting out oftheir surroundings— not just in the so-often parodied rugged landscapes, but also in the brooding presence of Wuthering Heights itself, with its blackened turrets thrusting out of the cold stone walls. Kosminsky brings an expressionist’s eye to the material, whereby settings mirror inner turmoil and vice versa.
‘Cathy is faced with the choice between the easy road — but the emotionally ﬂat road — of following Edgar Linton to The Grange,’ he explains, ‘or the painful road filled with the peaks and troughs of life at Wuthering Heights. From that came the imagery. Wuthering Heights became a place on a hill, a ramshackle building partly fallen into disuse, draughty, made of stone and wood and elemental materials, a pagan kind of place where the emotions have free reign. The Grange is sheltered in a valley, a beautiful building constructed from one man’s design to one plan. an elegant, comfortable place ofthe intellect, a place with Christian values. It was an attempt to say “In Cathy‘s dilemma, meet the pagan. hedonistic world and the renaissance, Age of Reason world”. She chooses’ — and here he adds weight to every word — ‘and makes l the wrong choice.’ f Wuthering Heights opens in Scot/(13
on Friday 16 October.
The List 9— 22 October 199215