‘Wuthering Heights’ Gets TV Reprieve

Over the past year, Ralph Fiennes has become a much-in-demand actor, thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn as the savage SS commandant Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” and his acclaimed portrayal of Charles Van Doren in Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show.”

But a 1992 British production of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” his first feature film, has never been released theatrically in the United States. Filmed on location on the stark English moors, the $9-million Paramount production had a very brief theatrical release in Britain two years ago and was also shown there on television.

Thanks to TNT, though, Fiennes’ fans can catch this early work when the cable network premieres “Wuthering Heights” on Monday night. Directed by documentary filmmaker Peter Kosminsky, this version of Bronte’s 1847 novel, unlike the classic 1939 adaptation starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, covers the entire book. Also starring in the tale of ill-fated love is French actress Juliette Binoche as the very British Cathy and Sinead O’Connor --with hair --as Emily Bronte.

So why wasn’t the film ever released here theatrically?


“TNT has a really excellent reputation for handling a film like ‘Wuthering Heights,’ ” says Joel Berman, president of distribution, Paramount Domestic Television. “We thought it would be excellent exposure for the film. That’s why we decided to go that way. At this point, TV would be a better medium for it--rather than get it lost in a theatrical release.”

The truth is, however, that “Wuthering Heights” didn’t ignite the box office in England. In fact, the Oct. 26, 1992, edition of Daily Variety described the film as a pre-Christmas box-office turkey. The reviews also were not exactly kind.

“For a film that is about the turbulent extremes of emotion, in which desire festers into hateful destruction, it is curiously and ridiculously--empty,” wrote Lizzie Francke in Sight & Sound. As for Fiennes, she said: “It’s true that Ralph Fiennes, complete with wild whiplash hair and swarthy makeup, does not limit his portrayal of Heathcliff to all smouldering, rough sexuality, but the contradictions of this rogue male character are never fully explained.”

T he Sunday Times’ Henry Cockburn also was not pleased. “Ralph Fiennes’ Heathcliff looks admirably unsavoury, though his pained expressions grow monotonous with time, as though he had permanent indigestion. With Juliette Binoche, you hear the voice coach at work; she is best when silent. Together they strike an occasional spark, but nowhere near enough to ignite the whole film.”

Still, there was a silver lining. Fiennes’ performance made a big impression on Steven Spielberg. The director told The Times earlier this year, “I asked to see a print of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and thought it was a difficult part he pulled off.” Soon after, he offered Fiennes the role in “Schindler’s.”

Lisa Mateas, senior vice president of programming at TNT, believes that Fiennes’ growing number of admirers won’t be disappointed.

“He is hot, hot,” she says. “He’s, like, lukewarm in ‘Quiz Show’ compared to what he is in this. It’s just a ripping good yarn that will appeal on various different levels. It’s nice to have something for the younger female group who don’t always sample us.

“If somebody could watch this and say, ‘I wonder what the (original) was like,’ then that is the greatest thing in the world.”


* “Wuthering Heights” airs on TNT on Monday at 5 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m. and next Sundayat 5 p.m.