Can Natalie Portman reach ‘Wuthering Heights’?


A new film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights is in the works. John Maybury — who helms upcoming lesbianish film The Edge of Love and is openly gay — is attached to direct, and Natalie Portman is attached to star as Catherine Earnshaw. According to, the project is tentatively scheduled for release in 2010.

This isn’t the first adaptation of the novel. Probably the most famous version is the 1939 film, starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy. Fans of the BBC’s recent drama Mistresses might be interested to know that Oberon — who hid her Indian heritage to ‘pass’ as white in the racist Hollywood of the 1930s — is actually the great-aunt of Shelley Conn (below, left) who starred in Mistresses as the bisexual Jessica, and also played the leading lesbian in Nina’s Heavenly Delights (out this week on DVD in the U.S.).

There’s also the 1992 film that starred Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche — along with the now openly lesbian British actress Sophie Ward as Isabella Linton. tells me there was even an updated, Americanized musical version in 2003, starring Erika Christensen as “Cate” and Mike Vogel as “Heath”.

Thankfully (I suspect), I haven’t seen the Christensen version. But in my opinion both the Oberon and Binoche adaptations leave room for improvement. While the Oberon version is atmospheric, it focuses solely on Heathcliff and Cathy’s tragic romance – leaving out the story of the next generation and how they have to try and repair the damage that Heathcliff and Cathy have done. This reinforces what I think is a popular tendency when it comes to Wuthering Heights: to view it as if it was just a bodice-bursting romance – Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy gone bad – rather than a violent, disturbing story about cycles of abuse.

Even when it comes to Heathcliff and Cathy’s romance, filmmakers often seem to ignore some of the interesting aspects of their relationship. Emily Brontë had a family nickname of “The Major”, and in the novel Wuthering Heights Cathy says of her lover that “he’s more myself than I am […] I am Heathcliff!” The idea of a masculine or androgynous Catherine – along with the idea that Heathcliff might partly have been a projection of Emily Brontë’s own personality, and thus have an androgynous side himself – never quite seems to make it into a film version.

With all this in mind, I have mixed feelings about the casting of Portman as Catherine Earnshaw. She’s certainly a better choice than Keira Knightley, who was one of the names originally bandied about for the role. And she’s possibly better than Lindsay Lohan, who was also mentioned (though I actually think that Lindsay could have played the spoilt, wilful aspect of Catherine’s character rather well).

I haven’t seen a lot of Portman’s work, but the impression I have of her is of someone very bright, earnest, articulate and responsible. While I’m thankful that she’s not bringing a whole lot of tabloid baggage to the project, I do wonder if she has the passion and spirit to play Cathy. (I also wonder about her Yorkshire accent… but then that would be an issue for Lohan and Knightley as well).

What do you think? Are you a fan of Wuthering Heights? Who would your ideal Catherine be?

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