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A Look Back at Paramount's WUTHERING HEIGHTS and the BBC's JANE EYRE

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Despite my love for Strauss and late Verdi, early-Romantic bel canto opera is my favorite. If Bellini's operas and many of Donizetti's will never be wildly popular, if Verdi's Attila will never be played as often as his Aida, then Verdi's last bel canto-like works (La Traviata in particular) are among his most popular today. I'd venture a guess that most people like Beethoven's music, and that Rossini's music pleases so many because it's similarly rhythmic; the musicologist Robert Greenberg once likened the Count's Serenades in Il barbiere di Siviglia to pop songs.

Beethoven's music has a balance of contrasting qualities (e.g., Classical serenity and Romantic passion) that increases its chances of general appeal. The novels of Rossini's contemporary Jane Austen rival his operas in popularity; the works of her successors Emily and Charlotte Bronte have never been neglected. Say "English novel" in a word association test, and Wuthering Heights and/or Jane Eyre will likely come up--though the actual novels are now less familiar than are their filmed versions. Of these, the BBC's 2006 Jane Eyre is a beloved classic, Paramount Pictures' 1992 Wuthering Heights more of a cult classic. For me these two adaptations are like bel canto operas; moody and beautiful, they have Lucia di Lammermoor's Gothic themes and Rossini's Classical/Romantic balance. Their wide, or cult, appeal is easy to fathom.

The Jane Eyre is close to ideal in every way: script, cast, music, atmosphere. A 1997 version is too pretty and bright, a 2011 so dark as to be alienating. The 2006, by contrast, is both somber and arresting, with its color scheme of grays, browns, and blues interspersed, with jewel tones like burgundy and red; its stone walls; its exterior shots that are mist-filled or moonlit; and its candlelit rooms filled with Gothic-style furniture. The most striking scene of all is the flashback showing Bertha Mason’s fatal fall from Thornfield Hall’s roof. In director Susanna White’s imagining of the fall are parallels with Lucia di Lammermoor (insanity, a bridal veil), Bellini's I Puritani (same), and even Puccini's Tosca (suicide by rooftop jump). Having set fire to Jane’s abandoned veil, the white-gowned Bertha is shown dragging it through the mansion and leaving it, finally, in the center of a corridor. She then climbs the stairs to the roof, where Rochester finds her. Ignoring his pleas, she spies a white owl in the night sky, imitates it by stretching out her arms, and “soars” over the parapet to her death. The action, the brilliant lighting, the dizzying camerawork, and Rob Lane’s quasi-religious music all combine to make this stunning sequence the epitome of "early-Romantic Gothic."

Toby Stephens gives us a Rochester who could never be confused with Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or even with that Byronic hero Poldark. Stephens' unglamorous protagonist is humorously self-critical, and gruff but not mean. Cynical but not self-destructive, he is a gentleman trying to find his own place in the world. Cleverly, he enlists Jane’s help to confirm what he has long suspected: that the leisure class to which he nominally belongs is insufferably shallow and vain. Ruth Wilson’s "interior" performance makes Jane distinctive; she is determined but not rebellious, sad but not despondent, good but not self-righteous. Such balance serves to remind the viewer (as do the Beethovenian woodwinds in Lane's ending cue) that the moody Romantic period was directly preceded by the more rational Classical. Lane's finale, moreover--even as it evokes Beethoven--is slyly "relevant," with its pop-like rhythm.

The less-praised Wuthering Heights movie is at least visually ideal, bringing to life Bronte's world of wildflowers; storms; mists; craggy moors; Gothic manor houses; and Georgian estates. As in the Jane Eyre, every setting is stunning. Even the Heathcliff, Ralph Fiennes, is classically attractive--far more so than is Tom Hardy, ITV's nihilistic Heathcliff of 2009. With his lithe build and superb profile, Fiennes resembles a Pre-Raphaelite artist's model; perhaps for this reason, he never quite loses our sympathy. In fact, Fiennes gives us a Heathcliff whose abusiveness stems from his miserable past and his own self-loathing. Fiennes' acting spans an astonishing range of moods; take the following scene, in which the overpowering love Heathcliff feels for Cathy turns the sometimes impassive, sometimes petulant, expression of the actor's mouth kindly and indulgent as an internal battle is fought and won ("It's forgive..."):

Fiennes makes us see Heathcliff's curse as his willful shield against the pain of Cathy's death. Her body is laid out and adorned, Ophelia-like, with lilies of the valley when Edgar enters, kisses the forehead decorously if sadly, and leaves. Heathcliff then enters by breaking a window; he tears off Cathy's veil and hugs her while sobbing. The effect in this sequence is like that of a Haydn minuet interrupted by the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. The soundtrack, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, intensifies the contrast.

Sakamoto's score is just one of the elements that adds welcome beauty to a basically unpleasant story. Other versions of Wuthering Heights have had better Cathys or richer scripts; few have been so ravishing or so touching as Paramount's. The BBC's Jane Eyre is, frankly, the most idiomatic imaginable. It deserves all its praise, just as the Wuthering Heights deserves more praise than it generally gets.

Link to a piano rendition of the Jane Eyre finale:

Link to the Heathcliff curse sequence:

Updated Mar-27-2018 at 21:16 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Opera , Visual Arts , Literature