Many reviews of Peter Kosminsky's Wuthering Heights (1992) seem to work from the premise that it "should" represent the novel in an absolutely faithful manner. However, who is to say that it was Kosminsky's aim to give as faithful a portrait as possible? Isn't it just as likely to assume that he wanted to adapt it into a compelling film which, although clearly based on Emily Brontė's novel of 1847, can nevertheless stand alone as work of art of its own? It can be productive to look at what was changed in the process of adaptation for the screen and to speculate why, yet Kosminsky is under no obligation to please the purists: in fact, given the nature of the thing, that would probably be an impossible task.
The film was critically panned upon its release - The Guardian mocked it as "an abject disaster" - and the French actress Juliette Binoche was seen as a controversial, risible choice to play a much-loved heroine of English fiction. I vividly recall my English teacher at secondary school lampooning her performance: "Oh, Nelly, je suis Heathcliff!". One only needs to take a look at Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre (1995), however, to see how an international cast can triumphantly portray English figures. I find her accent passable (although without a Yorkshire tilt); I do have other reservations about her portrayal of Cathy Earnshaw, though. In the novel she is a "wild, wicked slip of a lass" - volatile, headstrong, mercurial, selfish, stubborn, and by no means the rather one-sided giggly, vivaciously capricious creature that Binoche portrays her as (how much Kosminsky himself wanted Cathy to be portrayed as such, we can only wonder). It is difficult to give sufficient weight to her declaration of love for Healthcliff and that famous statement of joint identity, when Binoche has hitherto been bent on convincing us of Cathy's thoughtless indifference and flighty superficiality. It is perhaps a failure of the Casting Director to have Binoche play the younger Catherine, too. The viewer can scarcely tell them apart. In spite of the blonde curly wig, Binoche conveys insufficient difference in their temperaments.
Ralph Fiennes is well cast as Heathcliff and is brilliant at portraying his brutal passion and evil intentions. But perhaps he does over-compensate for Binoche's sanitising performance by playing him with such an unrelentingly violent temper. This could also be a fault of the screenplay, which rushes the childhood years; the viewer has little chance to build up a sense of sympathy for him. Moreover, both protagonists seem too old when they begin their portrayals of the adolescent youths (a criticism also frequently thrown at the more recent 1998 ITV adaptation of the tale); Fiennes was almost 30 and Binoche 28 when it was released and we are expected to believe that the characters are still in their late teens, scampering through the Heights and fooling about during Joseph's tutorials.
The supporting cast play their roles faultlessly; much of the strength of this film is down to them. Simon Shepherd excels as the squeamish, emotionally repressed Edgar Linton, Jeremy Northam as the tyrannical and dissipated Hindley, Janet McTeer as the servant Nelly, and Sophie Ward as the naive Isabella, who brims with romantic illusions and is perfect fodder for Heathcliff, hell-bent on revenge. Sinead O'Connor - who goes inexplicably uncredited - frames the film, appearing at the start and finish as Emily Brontė herself (who narrates the story here instead of Nelly and Lockwood).
For many, this version of Wuthering Heights has proved to be cinematic marmite - you either love it or hate it. For me personally, it is an underrated, if not flawless, adaptation that deserves a second chance.