"Wuthering Heights": A Victorian novel with a name (and plot points) fit for a 1980s prime-time soap. It's one of those titles that rattles around in your head even before you've ever read the book or the Cliffs Notes, or seen it adapted for TV or the movies, which it has been at least once a decade since 1920, not even counting foreign-language films or the 2003 MTV musical update.
Not all of those versions have made it to America, to be sure, but Sunday night brings the latest “Masterpiece” incarnation, only 11 years after the last one. (It was "Masterpiece Theatre" then, of course.)
Given its thoroughgoing tempestuousness, it's no surprise that Emily Brontë's novel of everlasting love denied -- and yet, in its way, fulfilled -- is catnip to producers and actors alike. Along with the heavy breathing, it has the appointments of a fairy tale (dark child reduced to servitude by evil foster brother) and of a ghost story (lonely, isolated house, dug-up grave, possible actual ghosts). And yet it is a difficult story to make well, because its hero, Heathcliff, is also such a villain -- at the very least a pain in the neck -- as he prosecutes a permanent war of revenge against everyone who kept him down or apart from his foster sister, Cathy. (And she can be a bit of a pill herself.)
For his part, Heathcliff is doomed only to be miserable, and he makes a lot of other people unhappy before his own death finally reunites him, if you like to look at it that way, with Catherine. The 1939 William Wyler film, which didn't hurt Laurence Olivier's career any, ends at Cathy's death (only halfway through the novel), omitting all of Heathcliff's subsequent perversity as -- having become mysteriously rich and locally powerful -- he takes out his own misfortunes on the younger members of two intertwined families. Tom Hardy, who was the extraordinarily creepy handyman in "Meadowlands," takes the lead here.
He is a suitably dangerous sort, but ("Gypsy" origins notwithstanding) he also plays Heathcliff as a solid Yorkshireman; he's at his best, oddly, at his most manipulative and hard-hearted.
For the most part, it remains difficult to feel his pain enough to want to take his side. Worse, in spite of a good deal of bodily contact, the sparks never really fly between him and Cathy (Charlotte Riley), though they are both obviously hot. We take their passion as read, rather than felt.
As to that title -- Brontë herself wasted no time in explaining it as "a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather." This production doesn't wuther quite enough.