Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: “Wuthering Heights” (1939)

Happy Friday, Persephoneers! I’ll admit that I’m in the mood for a sweeping love story, so this weekend’s movie pick is Wuthering Heights, made in 1939, which stars Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven and was directed by William Wyler.

The film follows the plot of Bronte’s classic novel, with Mr. Lockwood meeting his landlord, Mr. Heathcliff, while passing the night at Wuthering Heights, and later seeing Catherine’s ghost. When he returns home to Thrushcross Grange, he asks his housekeeper about the Heathcliffs. Nelly, who was once a maid at Wuthering Heights, weaves the tragic tale of Heathcliff (Olivier), Cathy Earnshaw (Oberon), Edgar Linton (Niven), and Isabella Linton (Fitzgerald) and how love doomed all of them.

Heathcliff and Catherine sitting side by side on the moors.
Young Heathcliff and Catherine.

This version of the film focuses on the story of the first generation of Earnshaws, Lintons, and Heathcliffs. While the novel was more of a gothic tale warning of the problematic nature of all-consuming love and hate, this film makes much of Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s romance and turns it into a star-crossed love. Here, Catherine and Heathcliff are kept apart because of social class and family expectations. Heathcliff, who is a foundling, cannot hope to ever marry Catherine, who is the daughter of a gentleman, no matter how he much he loves her. Catherine, who marries the much more respectable Edgar Linton, may have followed the path that society set for her, but she is miserable all the same, because she has chosen a life of comfort and security over the uncertainty that came with her love for Heathcliff. She really had no choice, because she, as the daughter of a gentleman, would be expected to make a good match. When a newly wealthy Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after Catherine’s marriage, the vitriol between the two is palpable. Heathcliff resents that he will never be able to have Catherine no matter how much he loves her. Catherine must contend with her own disappointment. Both find their jealousy eating away at them as Heathcliff sees Catherine with Edgar and as Catherine sees Heathcliff with Isabella.

The question of everlasting love is also explored. Catherine confides in Nelly that she loves Heathcliff so much that she feels as though each possesses a part of the other and that they aren’t whole without each other. Her death doesn’t break their bond; it seems that her spirit can’t move on until she finds Heathcliff. Likewise, Heathcliff himself is tormented by his love for Catherine and the loss he has felt not only during life, but also after her death. Death has freed Catherine from the obstacles which prevented her from being able to love him as she should have, and death will no doubt free Heathcliff from his own guilt and anguish and allow him to finally spend eternity with the woman he has always loved.

Heathcliff and Catherine stand together in evening wear.
Heathcliff and Catherine after his return.

It’s also interesting to note that Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon detested each other. The scenes in which Catherine and Heathcliff are angry with one another are quite convincing, as the two seemed to have channeled their detestation of one another into these interactions. Such scenes also help the film’s other exploration of how closely love and hate are related. Catherine and Heathcliff loved each other very deeply and very passionately, and they hated each other with the same intensity. Two people who made each other so happy also made each other extremely miserable, particularly when circumstances forbade them from spending their lives together as they wished.

If you’re interested in a version of the film that focuses more on the love story, even though Wuthering Heights is more of a gothic tale than a romance, this is the version to watch. It doesn’t focus on the effects of the first generation’s actions upon their children, but that’s what the BBC miniseries with Tom Hardy is for, right?

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