Jane Eyre (1973): A Loving But Non-Ideal Rendition

In a review written earlier, I said the 1983 BBC version of Jane Eyre "captures Charlotte Bronte's language and spirit with far greater fidelity than any other." Now I have viewed a worthy contender: a 1973 serialization, also from the BBC.

 

Totaling about four hours, the 1973 version is nearly an hour and a half shorter than its successor. Nonetheless, the screenwriter and director managed to cover all the major plotlines and many minor ones.

 

Is this the best screen rendition of Jane Eyre? Read on for my opinions of its pluses and minuses.

The 1973 series comprises five segments of roughly 50 minutes each. It feels less "choppy" than the 1983 version's eleven half-hour pieces.

 

A gratifyingly large portion of the dialogue is straight or lightly modified Bronte. In any given scene, many lines are likely to be skipped and/or combined with nearby ones, which makes sense from a time standpoint. (Occasionally, a conversation turns nonlinear, skipping forward and backward through the corresponding scene in the original text. Unless the viewer is following along with a book in one hand, this usually presents few logical problems.) Frequent voice-overs help smooth the story's flow.

 

As is the case with 1983's, this made-for-TV production often resembles a filmed stage play rather than a standard motion picture. Camera and lighting techniques, together with many actors' habit of speaking as if delivering lines rather than conversing, give it that playing-to-a-nearby-audience feel. Quite a few lines are delivered while a character is gazing away from his or her companion — an overly theatrical touch.

 

That is not meant as a criticism of the cast. Most of them are clearly skilled actors; the supporting roles are, by and large, well played. I was impressed by the way actors brought to life characters ranging from the serious and chaste St. John Rivers to the glamorous Blanche Ingram to the crazed and dangerous Bertha Mason to cheery young Adele.

 

The question of whether this production is the best one hangs largely upon the portrayals of Jane and Rochester. Sorcha Cusack, as Jane, is often outstanding, particularly in her delivery of many lines in the latter half of the story. Unfortunately, though, I find much of her earlier work off-key. In particular, during her early days at Thornfield, she often seems mildly amused rather than cowed by her new surroundings — not the way I picture Jane feeling.

 

Cusack is also clearly too old for the role. She was playing an 18-year-old who loves a 38-year-old, but she was actually in her mid-twenties, and she looks it. That greatly softens the intended contrast between a world-weary gentleman and an emotionally naive teenager. (Young Jane and Helen Burns also looked significantly too old.)

 

Michael Jayston begins his portrayal of Rochester in similarly unpromising fashion. When he meets Jane after his horse falls, he alternates bluster and calm speech in an unlikely manner. However, his later performance also improves, with well-delivered lines and an authentic appearance. His only consistent shortcomings are over-emoting at crucial moments and failing to deliver a powerful physical presence. Overall, I found his performance believable but not gripping.

 

Emotional pitch is a frequent problem with this production. It reaches its apex in Mrs. Reed's bedroom upon Jane's return; the old lady is a bundle of quivering nostrils, heaving chest, and wild speech. Another sour note of over-emoting is Rochester's physical approach to Jane when she seeks to leave Thornfield after their wedding is called off. He repeatedly kisses her strenuously on the lips, despite Bronte's depiction of him "softly kissing my forehead and cheek."

 

As I'd mentioned above, nothing crucial was omitted from the tale. Some of the missing secondary themes include Jane's earliest Lowood experiences, before a lunch of bread and cheese is offered; Bessie's visit to Jane at Lowood; Eliza and Georgiana Reed quarreling; Jane telling Mrs. Fairfax of the engagement; Jane begging in a village before meeting the Rivers family; and the existence of Rosamond Oliver, who desires St. John's company. It's also a shame that the story ends without Jane mentioning the son she bore.

 

Those omissions matter little. Worse are the invented scenes — a bad habit that people writing screen treatments of classics can't seem to shake. Most significant are a pair of doctors telling Reverend Brocklehurst he is responsible for the typhus outbreak; two society ladies discussing John Reed while visiting Thornfield, soon followed by Mason chatting with Lady Ingram; and Briggs and Mason, at the wedding, scheming to delay their announcement of an "impediment." I was also surprised to see Jane recognize the "gypsy woman" as Rochester.

 

Due to its unusual fidelity to Bronte's language and storyline, as well as the general quality of its cast, this BBC production is well worth seeing. Still, its shortcomings keep me from recommending it as a definitive treatment.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Bronte's original language is used or lovingly reshaped for much of the dialogue
  • High-quality actors set scenes well for the main characters 
  • All important scenes are included, as are many secondary ones

WEAKNESSES

  • Film lacks a glossy "cinema" feel 
  • Sorcha Cusack is too often unconvincing as Jane, and Michael Jayston is a less-than-ideal Rochester
  • Line delivery and character emotions tend to be overly theatrical
  • Unnecessary invented scenes strike some sour notes