DVD Theater Reviews
By Alidė Kohlhaas
It may be presumptuous to say that the new BBC/PBS co-production of Jane Eyre is one of the most visually effective and sumptuous of the many that have been put on film over the years, but that is this reviewer's opinion. The earliest memory of Jane Eyre as a film is one of black & white that featured Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles in the leading roles. It was, perhaps, the most gothic and brooding of the lot, though its visual impact was indirect. Not so with the new UK's BBC and the US's PBS production. These two companies have come up with a beautiful-to-look-at co-production for Masterpiece Theater that shines in its visual faithfulness to the time in which Jane Eyre is set, namely the mid-19th century, when Victorian norms held sway. If you love period film, gothic tales and great visual images, this is a DVD set that belongs in your collection.
Brontė happened to have lived in Derbyshire, a central English county, shortly before she began to write Jane Eyre, and the village of Morton to which Jane fled is based on a real place the author experienced. So, it makes sense to film this new production mostly at one of Britain's finest medieval homes, Haddon Hall, and in the surrounding Derbyshire countryside that has plenty of the kind of rugged landscape that is described in the novel. The new Jane Eyre literally bristles with the gothic undercurrents that Charlotte Brontė brought to her novel more than a century ago. At the same time this production shimmers with light, with serene English country garden scenes, with lush interiors in a sprawling estate that are juxtaposed with its confining, spooky corridors, and some earlier haunting scenes from subterranean dormitories of a poor-girls' school, and watching those children having to break the ice that covers their washing bowls before cleansing their hands and face in the icy water.
Dead white male authors have long been excluded from the school curriculum, and sadly, so have been the novels by dead white females. Jane Eyre is not among the novels young girls read nowadays, yet they should. Brontė wrote at a time when women were the chattel of their husbands, when children were seldom to be seen and never to be heard, when little girls were not expected to exercise their brains. Brontė's plain, diminutive Jane, both as a child and as a woman, eagerly sought to learn. She was strong willed, and not to be taken lightly.
There is much to be learned from this tale of 150 years ago. It is rich in language and expression. There are fine lessons about vanitysomething that obsesses today's generations far too muchand what it can lead to; about spoiling children too muchtoday's parents might take note of this when they once again fail to refuse their little darlings the latest gadget.
There are lessons about inflated religious zeal, about social snobbery, about lack of feelings for others. Yet, the novel is highly entertaining, can be read with ease by both young and old without ever being boring. Who does not like to read about a bright orphan, rejected, mistreated, and unloved, who ends up being charitable, caring, and loving and, ultimately, loved? Add to this mixture some tormented souls, one wholly mad, another driven to wander the world because of guilt feelings, and there are all the ingredients needed to make the perfect tale. It also contains sexual undercurrents that the Victorians never allowed to be spoken of openly, but expressed so very ably below the surface. And, most of all, what today's young women should like about this book is Brontė's insistence on the equality of the sexes at a time when it seemed an impossibility to achieve, and is even now not quite yet wholly fulfilled.
The cast chosen for this BBC/PBS Jane Eyre is of the highest caliber and fits the roles for the most part. There is a tendency to make leading children appealing, but little Jane (Georgie Henley) can hardly be called cute. Henley is a child whose looks suit the righteously willful, determined character of Jane. Nor did Brontė want her grownup Jane (Ruth Wilson) to be pretty in the Victorian ideal. Wilson's facial irregularities ensure we'll not think of her as beautiful, yet she has fine features to which one can well relate Edward Fairfax Rochester's (Toby Stephens) claim that she has a way of bewitching him. Her large eyes speak volumes.
Rochester is not a handsome man, and Stephens looks too much like his mother, Maggie Smith, to ever be accused of being that. Yet, he is not bad on the eyes either. He captures the broody nature of the lead male, but also those moments when he sheds it to allow him to befriend Jane. And one does appreciate Pam Ferris (the saucy Ma Larkin of Darling Buds of May fame) as the mysterious, stern Grace Poole, the very opposite of the role that made her famous.
One must also not forget young Cosima Littlewood, who gives a fine performance as the coquettish young Adčle, Rochester's French ward for whom his housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Lorraine Ashburn) hired Jane Eyre as governess. This young actress captures Brontė's description of the child to perfection.
One does not have to be a devotee of Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre to enjoy this latest cinematic production of the novel, but it does help to have read it to understand some of the subtext of the work. This is especially true in the first third or so of the first part of the four-hour 2-DVD set just released here in North America through WGBH Boston, and already available on Amazon, if it isn't yet in your local Video store. It seems, that to fit the four-hour format, the screen writer Sandy Welch and director Susanna White opted for quick sketches to depict the early years of Jane's life. There is no explanation of the why and wherefore of Jane's predicament, of her childish tormentors at her heartless aunt's home, and the sudden appearance of the sinister Mr. Brocklehurst (Richard McCabe), who asked the child what she must do to avoid going to Hell. The little girl thinks, then makes the famous reply: "I must keep in good health and not die."
There is too much skimming over Jane's entry into Lowood, the harsh poor girls' school, the reasons for why the child is called a liar by the re-appearing Brocklehurst, why the dying of so many children of the school, and Jane's relationship to one of the girl's at whose side the story's young heroine sleeps only to find her dead in the morning. The deaths of the girls are given some explanation in the second part of the series, but viewers will never know that Jane's young friend died of consumption (tuberculosis, as we call it now). There is a complete skimming over her school years and how she managed to survive there and then acquire the ability to be a governess.
The remainder of the show makes far better use of the rich material the novel supplies, which is actually told by Jane, who occasionally speaks directly to her readers, but not to the audience of the film. But, there are some glaring changes, such as the scene that features the appearance of a gypsy at Thornfield while Rochester is briefly away. The original is far more to the point of showing off the vanity of Rochester's guests and Jane's ability to see through guises. Is it political correctness that made the writer and director choose to represent Bertha Rochester (Claudia Coulter) as a beautiful, seemingly reposed woman rather than one marked by her severe illness, and far more fair-skinned that her Creole background warrants?
There is also a change in the manner Jane is rescued by the Rev. St. John Rivers (Andrew Buchan). Rivers is described as having a Grecian profile, which hardly applies to the good-looking Buchan, a more refined Russell Crow in features. Buchan manages to portray the benevolent side of the good Reverend, but not his suppressed nature. And, why, one wonders, are we told that Jane and St. John are half-cousins, when in fact they are first cousins? Why the change from becoming a missionary to India to one leaving for the Cape in Africa? These are niggling little discrepancies that bother a full-blown Jane Eyre fan. They may not bother a first-time viewer of this Victorian tale, but they require a good read afterwards to get the full impact of the novel that has such strong feminist overtones. Yes, there are also undercurrents of Victorian prejudices in the book, but those were the times, and political correctness does not teach us anything. For one, we still have certain opinions about the French that are no different from the Victorian image of the inhabitants of that nation.
This Jane Eyre is a generally good interpretation, a well-acted one, eminently worth seeing, but it doesn't tell the full story, it fails on the subtext, it doesn't let us know that the novel is almost an interior monologue. Perhaps therein lies the problem for any screen writer. If one can make any suggestion for future writers and directors of this story: add an extra hour to solve the problem. It would have been worth every minute and would have done far greater justice to a great novel than the current production achieves in the final outcome.
Having said this, this show is still recommended for fine viewing. At the same time one would suggest that parents go out and buy the 'original' version of the novel as a gift to the younger viewers in their household. They won't regret it.