Wuthering Heights was my favorite novel as a teenager because, of course, it fit my angsty, romantic gothic self. I’m still angsty and goth, but now I’m bitter and jaded so now I see the characters and plot for the simplistic archetypes they are, tucked up underneath all that poetry. And since much of what makes Emily Brontë’s novel great is the language, when adapted for screen, all that tends to come thru is the ridiculousness of the plot and characters. Only a couple adaptions touch at some of the poetry, and I find this 1992 one titled Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights pretty good.
Even though this is just a 105-minute film, it manages to include all the major plot points of the novel, from Lockwood to the second generation and does mostly in costumes of the right historical periods. As I complained in my big wrap-up of all the TV and movie versions of this novel, one thing that productions frequently get wrong is the story’s carefully laid out timeline. Brontë writes in the book that the action starts in 1801 and is told in flashback, so the main action takes place from 1780 to 1784. Costume-wise, this means we should see two distinct eras in clothing: the flashback / main story is in 18th-century fashion, while the “current day” story is in early 19th-century / Regency fashion. With the caveat that the whole novel is set at two big manor houses in the wild Yorkshire moors, with one family being wealthier than the other.
Oscar-winning designer James Acheson (Dangerous Liaisons, Restoration, The Last Emperor) created the costumes for this film, and it’s the best-looking Wuthering Heights around (not a high bar, but still). So I’m going to go through this wuthering wardrobe from start to finish, mostly looking at the women because I find them more interesting and their fashion shows the progression of time better.
As a refresher, check out this family tree someone posted on Wikipedia — the portraits aren’t perfect, but the dates are taken from the novel.
This movie opens with the 1801 framing story. Except … here’s Cathy Linton in solidly 18th-c. dress and her hair running wild. Now, the hair will be a theme with everyone living at Wuthering Heights. I guess it’s a symbol of the wild moors or something. Totes cliche! But IDK why the dress is 20-ish years out of date.
Alrighty then, after the ghost bits, we flashback to the real start of the story, when young Heathcliff is brought to the family by old Mr. Earnshaw in 1771. These scenes work from a costume-showing-the-correct-historical-period POV.
Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw die, Cathy’s asshole older brother Hindley takes over the house. Fast-forward a decade, and we get older actors.
Cathy Linton in 1801, young Cathy Earnshaw in 1771, and grown-up Cathy Earnshaw in 1780-ish are all wearing the same style of gown. Now, the ‘night gown’ or ‘robe a l’anglaise’ had lots of variations, but this essential style is plausible for the two earlier decades. It’s stretch to find someone wearing it for longer, IMO.
Heathcliff and Cathy run around, peek in at Thrushcross Grange where the fancy-pants Lintons live, but they’re caught. Cathy gets hurt and is stuck. This is our first chance to see upper-class 18th-c. clothes and hair. Presumably the families at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are of similar social status, as their both the only landowners out the middle of bumfuck nowhere. But the Lintons wear silk, style their hair, and have more servants.
Cathy’s asshole brother and his pregnant wife, Frances, greet her when Cathy returns after recuperating.
Staying with the Lintons turns Cathy on to the finer things in life. She still can’t put her hair up but, hey, silk dresses sure are nice.
The Wuthering Heights people and the Thrushcross Grange people have a party to, I guess, celebrate that Cathy’s back home? In the book, it’s for Christmas but that’s not made clear in this movie.
Cathy hangs around the Heights just long enough after this to give the iconic speech that Heathcliff half-overhears and gets pissed off by and leaves for a few years.
Cathy marries Edgar and moves to Thrushcross Grange, where they make a boring little family with Isabella.
I haven’t mentioned Nelly yet — she’s the servant who’s just a little bit older than Cathy and Heathcliff, and she follows Cathy to Thrushcross Grange (and later serves Cathy and Edgar’s daughter, following her back to Wuthering Heights). In the novel, chunks of the story are told through her POV, but not in this movie or any other filmed adaption that I recall.
Heathcliff visits, after having disappeared for a couple years. Good thing Cathy’s wearing a nice dress!
Compare Heathcliff to Cathy’s hubby:
With Healthcliff back in the picture, Cathy’s out and about, and Isabella’s tagging along in wanna-be matchy outfits.
Cathy notices that Isabella is getting the hots for Heathcliff, and she both teases Isabell about it and warns her away.
Isabella runs away and marries Heathcliff, regretting it instantly. Cathy dies giving birth to a daughter, who Edgar names Cathy (ugh).
Isabella gives birth to a son she names Linton (ugh). Hindley dies, in case anyone gave a shit.
Time passes, and we see Cathy Linton around age 16 — she meets Heathcliff and Linton, and no good will come of this.
Heathcliff plots to force Isabella to marry Linton as part of his grand revenge scheme.
Edgar dies, and this is the last time young Cathy wears Regency-style gowns.
WTfrock? Is it because all her money is gone with Daddy? Yes, we’ve been shown that Wuthering Heights is backwards and unfashionable and generally fucked up, but this is taking it a bit too far for one character to revert.
Finally Heathcliff dies, and the loose ends of the story are tied up. Young Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley and Frances’ son) fall in love and ride off into the moors together.
And then we see a frame with in the frame — the film had begun with a voiceover, and now it’s revealed that this was the author, Emily Brontë, telling the whole story to us.
What do you think of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights?