Wednesday 12 December 2018

Movie Review: Wuthering Heights (1939)

A drama and romance, Wuthering Heights is an engrossing story of personal trauma wrapped in a visual feast, but cannot escape the source material's overclocked emotions.

On the storm-swept Yorkshire moors, traveler Mr. Lockwood (Miles Mander) takes shelter at the secluded estate known as Wuthering Heights. He finds the owner Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) dour and barely welcoming. After Lockwood encounters a woman's ghost, the long-serving housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) recounts the history of the family.

Heathcliff was an orphaned young boy living on the streets of Liverpool when he was brought to the estate by the owner Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway). Heathcliff bonded with Earnshaw's young daughter Cathy, but had a strained relationship with her brother Hindley. They grow up together, and when Hindley (Hugh Williams) becomes master of the house he badly mistreats Heathcliff, whose relationship with Cathy (Merle Oberon) blossoms into a full-fledged romance.

But she is caught between her genuine affection towards the untamed Heathcliff and her desire to join upper-class society, with wealthy neighbour Edgar Linton (David Niven) offering his love and the opportunity for a lush life. Cathy wishes for Heathcliff to make something of himself, and then she makes a life-altering decision with far reaching consequences.

Lavishly produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, Wuthering Heights adapts the front end of Emily Brontë's classic novel. This is a story of a love so intense it starts rubbing shoulders with enmity. Jealous possessiveness, revenge and careless disregard for others are among the weapons deployed in a scorched earth struggle. The overheated fervor is a large part of the romantic sizzle, but the behaviour of both Heathcliff and Cathy often suggests bipolar disorders.

With sterling black and white cinematography courtesy of Gregg Toland and dazzling sets recreating a harsh corner of the English countryside, the film looks magnificent. Both the exterior landscapes and household interiors create immediate and transformative moods. The contrast between Wuthering Heights' increasingly ramshackle condition and the sparking Linton mansion, hosting eloquent balls with fashionable gowns and swish music, brings Cathy's existential dilemma into sharp relief.

Alfred Newman's music score is grand with Cathy's theme particularly evocative, although towards the end it is overused to distraction.

Wuthering Heights was Laurence Olivier's debut in Hollywood. He delivers a performance full of menace, whether as a lumbering stable hand brooding through the household or in his later incarnation as a man determined to claim what he believes is his. Olivier's Heathcliff only projects happiness when Cathy expresses her love to him, which she does frequently only to also push him to be something he is not.

Merle Oberon is less impressive, and in her more dramatically emotive scenes retreats into wide-eyed expressions more suited to the silent area. The cast also includes Geraldine Fitzgerald as Edgar's sister Isabella who gets caught up in the impulsive crossfire, Donald Crisp as the local doctor and Leo G. Carroll as a loyal family servant.

Wuthering Heights explores the tension between genuine organic affection and tempting societal status, and the price of pursuing personal change and forcing change in others. The outcomes are as jagged as a countryside exposed to blustery winters.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


  1. The movie was very sad, but I still liked it. I wish the story showed Cathy and Heathcliff together in harmony.

  2. Olivier is totally torchard in this role and Merle is so underrated in this performance!


We welcome reader comments about this post.