Mike Hogan/©BBC 2006
Good Charlotte: Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens play Jane and Rochester in 'Jane Eyre.'
To Eyre Is Human
BBC revisits the ultimate English romance
By Michael S. Gant
CHARLOTTE BRONTË'S quintessential bodice-ripper, Jane Eyre, lends itself well to film and TV adapters looking for a tale of romance, mystery and madness that also comes with the imprimatur of English literature—Barbara Cartland with a leather binding and a better prose style. The Internet Movie Database lists 18 film and TV adaptations, the latest of which, by the BBC, airs this Sunday and the next in two-hour chunks.
That list, by the way, doesn't include a couple of Westinghouse (a.k.a. Studio One) Summer Theatre Productions done in the early 1950s, one with Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Mr. Rochester, and the other with a surprisingly effective Charlton Heston—nor a weird Matinee Theater episode from 1957 with Joan Elan as a way-too-beautiful Jane, and Patrick Macnee (yes, The Avengers) as a mutton-chopped lecher drooling all over her. (You can find the relevant clip on YouTube). And in a stretch, what are Rebecca and I Walked With a Zombie but clever rips on Brontë?
The story—a governess is hired to teach the young ward of the handsome, enigmatic Mr. Rochester at splendid if gloomy Thornfield Hall only to learn that a sinister figure from the his past is subletting the attic—depends upon the balance between the leads.
Jane must be reserved, repressed even, but endowed with inner reserves. Rochester ... well, Rochester broods. He is a dark, troubled and irresistible force, until his own sins catch up with him. George C. Scott overshadowed Susannah York in a 1970 version; Timothy Dalton did the same to Zelah Ward in a 1983 miniseries. William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg were a bizarre choice for Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 take—but he's Italian, what does he know?
The definitive version remains the 1944 film with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, plus Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Reed, Jane's heartless aunt. The screenplay was credited to Welles' Mercury Theatre collaborator John Houseman and Aldous Huxley (although it's hard to imagine what the author of Brave New World had to offer, except some after-hours mescaline).
Veteran director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins AND Son of Flubber) never made another movie as good as Jane Eyre, and that's probably because, by several accounts, Welles did most of the heavy lifting in front of and behind the camera, just as he had done to Norman Foster the year before in Journey Into Fear, turning a studio product into an unmistakably auteur creation.
Welles' Rochester strides mightily across the moors, his layered cape flapping in the gale winds, his Great Dane by his side. Moving past a forest of blasted bare trees, he enters his Gothic castle straight out of Frankenstein, mounting a vast staircase crisscrossed with deep expressionistic shadows. Dismissing the "prattle of children" and "simple-minded old ladies," he invites the startled Jane for a sit-down, leading her into the immense library in a fluid tracking shot reminiscent of The Magnificent Ambersons.
The film demonstrates just how much talent Hollywood had to burn in those days. Cinematographer George Barnes filmed Rebecca and Spellbound for Hitchcock and two major noirs: Force of Evil and The File on Thelma Jordan. Bernard Herrmann (who started with Citizen Kane, ended with Taxi Driver and did Vertigo and Psycho along the way) supplied the Stürm und Drang score. Hell, they even had room for young stars Elizabeth Taylor (uncredited) and Margaret O'Brien as Adele, Rochester's ward.
The Welles Eyre has the benefit of concision; it ratches up the suspense very tightly in its 97 minutes. The new BBC production gives us much more of Brontë's novel. Maybe too much. The long opening sequence of Jane's miserable childhood and horrible boarding-school days drags.
The real fun doesn't begin until Toby Stephens shows up with his lustily dissarranged hair and puffy shirt. The man knows his tradition and delivers the kind of brooding Rochester demands. Instead of Welles' studio sets, this Eyre takes advantage of the British penchant for preservation to film on location at Haddon Hall, an authentic medieval castle in Derbyshire.
Young Ruth Wilson (Suburban Shootout), with a severe center part, duck lips and a bit of a weak chin, slowly comes into her own as Jane. Demure and self-effacing, she burns with considerable inner fire. On the downside, after Jane stumbles out onto the moors and away from Thornfield, we must endure the bizarre sidebar about the kindly and dithering Rivers sisters, who take Jane in, and the stick-up-the-ass, anti-Rochester clergyman St. John (a.k.a. "Sinjin"), who wants Jane to join him in a sexless marriage and a mission to India—followed by one of the most ridiculous inheritance-ex-machina moments in great literature. In the ultimate scale of things, this version tips slightly but not too much toward Jane.
But, for a moment, can we talk about Adele, Rochester's young ward (or could she be his daughter? Drum roll please)? I don't like to slag on child actors, but Cosima Littlewood delivers a French accent so grossly exaggerated that it sounds like something out of a Monty Python skit.
There must be some conspiracy at the BBC: Lilo Baur's French maid in the recent Bleak House was similarly over the top. But the problem isn't entirely an English peccadillo; Margaret O'Brien's Adele, fussing with her ostrich feathers is just as irritating. Our only hope is that Steven Spielberg doesn't decide to make his own Jane Eyre, with Dakota Fanning as Adele.
Jane Eyre, a BBC production, airs Jan. 21 and 28, 9-11pm, on PBS stations.
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