Based off of Emily Bronté’s only novel, the film adaptation of Wuthering Heights in 1939 tells the unfortunate tale of two lovers, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon).
The film begins dramatically, as a man caught in a storm stops at the mansion, Wuthering Heights, for shelter. After a less than friendly greeting and shown to a room, he sees a woman outside. He is told he just saw the ghost of Cathy, and Ellen (Flora Robson) an old servant recounts the tale.
Heathcliff was a poor boy, found on the streets and sent to become a servant at Wuthering Heights. Cathy was a young lady of the house. Their class differences that keep their love divided, mostly because Cathy has grown to an idea that she is supposed to marry a high class gentleman who can provide more than enough. This only hurts Heathcliff, who genuinely loves Cathy. For years she keeps Heathcliff at a distance, and seems to systematically toy with him, only to accept a proposal from Edgar (David Niven). This sends Heathcliff out into a storm, to America.
Years pass, and it all seems well, even happy for Cathy. Then Heathcliff returns, and with him all their old passions and resentments. He buys Wuthering Heights, once a servant in the home, now its master and marries Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), Cathy’s sister in law. With Heathcliff and Cathy so close again, and yet so far away, strain and resentments of what they missed out on with each other rise until the very tragic breaking point, as one of them slowly dies.
If you are a starry eyed romantic, grab plenty of tissues. This is a story of tragic love, where the downward spiral is the main event and the last half hour of the film will have you bawling. However, if you are the cynical sort (like me) you may roll your eyes at all the shoulda-coulda-woulda that this great love story seems based upon. The film portrays the love between Heathcliff and Cathy as a great potential, withered by petty ideals and snuffed out with tragedy to put it all into a sobering perspective.
That being said, I did enjoy the film. The Oscar winning cinematography is splendid, smart and full of powerful moments. Heathcliff punching through the glass is a heart wrenching moment, full of visual power. William Wyler certainly deserved his nomination for best director, this being his second of eleven. I personally did not care for Oberon’s performance, but that is probably because I despised her character. However, Olivier and Fitzgerald’s Oscar nominated performances are spellbinding and had me hooked.
“You must destroy us both with that weakness you call virtue.”