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
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.
Bronte's original language is used or
lovingly reshaped for much of the dialogue
High-quality actors set scenes well for the
All important scenes are included, as are
many secondary ones
Film lacks a glossy "cinema"
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