Earlier this year, PBS aired Masterpiece Theatre’s latest adaptation of Emily Bronte’s hauntingly favorite story, Wuthering Heights. After the terribly dry and awkward rendition with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, I had my reservations about a new resurrection. WH is such an oddly abstract and metaphysical tale. In highschool, I didn’t quite fathom its complexity but just took it more as atmospheric.
Fifteen years later, I understand a little bit more of what Bronte was trying to do with her immortal characters. The characters are psychologically and psychically complex–and in their psychic connection they remind me of Clarissa Dalloway’s transcendental connection to Septimus Smith. Cathy and Heathcliff are two souls commingling on another plane. Part of their connection is spiritually inherent and tied to Nature and Place–and the other part is tied to their willful defiance of a society that has condemned and belittled them, most cruelly, for their lowly status, Heathcliff especially, of course.
The pair are essentially the ubermensch couple, a la Nietzsche’s Superman and they defy the codes of the day, the strict mores of their socio-economic status and turn both Egdon Heath and Wuthering Heights inside out into their own perverse reality of revenge. Together, as willful agents, they turn the shackles their family set on them against those who denied them happiness, and end up dragging everyone else into the misery they were cornered into. Cathy becomes a businesswoman, in her own way, and attempts to raise her and Heathcliff from the confines of their life through the only means she had available, marriage to Edgar Linton. Marriage as business transaction in the most perverse sense, indeed.
Both Cathy and Heathcliff try to transcend their material roles, physically and economically, though I’d argue their spirits, metaphysically, are already soaring among heights that many of us can’t reach or fathom because we’re not the wild, free, willfully awakened spirits they are. Their story is Promethean. They are both Icarus vying for a greater glory– to be free and united as they were on the wild moors. And in their Elysian pursuit, in the face of reality and society–they are burned–but they’ll take the rest of us with them if they must go down. WH is Romanticism at its headiest and most ideal.
I could go on about Nelly, and the frame, meta-narrative told by the servant who becomes author and therefore authority to the tale. The MT production was not so much a disappointment since I armed myself with low expecations. Heathcliff, played by Tom Hardy, who was wonderful in MT’s 2008, Oliver Twist, seemed to have eaten one too many bangers and mash and pasties. And, as for Charlotte Riley’s Cathy, ever since I read Olivier’s biography, where he adamantly states that the only actor who could match Catherine’s fire was Vivien Leigh, I’ve been biased and second his sentiments. Though I have to give this adapation credit since all revelations listed above were borne from the 2009/8 Masterpiece Theatere production. Catherine & Heathcliff live again, and scour the earth like a doomed and fiery comet, leaving us as breathless and restless as they are.