Jane Eyre (1983): The True Spirit is Captured

Once I had begun reviewing movie versions of Jane Eyre, I knew the 1983 BBC film series needed to be on my list. Some other fans of the book had described this as the definitive film treatment. Given that its male star, Timothy Dalton, was unimpressive in his later James Bond roles, I kept my hopes restrained.

 

Good news: it turns out those other folks were right. This version captures Charlotte Bronte's language and spirit with far greater fidelity than any other apart from the 1973 BBC serialization. What a pleasure it is to hear so much true-to-the-book dialogue, recited in a believable way!

 

Of course, few blessings are unmixed; the viewer of this series must make tradeoffs, as I'll describe below.

First and foremost, this treatment comprises eleven half-hour episodes. Even if you fast-forward over the introduction and credits for each one, you must devote more than five hours to this project. That extra time enables a thorough portrayal of the story, but it requires patience.

 

Second, this treatment doesn't boast the glossy cinematography of some of its competitors. Indoor scenes look like a filmed stage play, and outdoor moments are a bit washed out.

 

Those two factors are the only large hurdles to enjoying the BBC series. If you are a devoted Jane Eyre fan, you will glory in the completeness of the treatment, the rich usage of Bronte's original words, and the overall competence of the cast. Alexander Baron is credited for having "dramatised" this work, and he deserves great praise. Just a handful of invented scenes and occasional pieces of sour-note dialogue mar a largely first-rate job.

 

Dalton carries off the role of Rochester fairly well overall. He is clearly a skilled actor who delivers his lines effectively. Yet I did not find him fully convincing. He seems to be forcing himself to be gruff; he lacks the naturally dark and powerful aspect, the gravitas, that Rochester presents in the book (and that Orson Welles had to excess in the 1943 Jane Eyre movie). He is not fully believable in scenes where he displays strong emotions; he also comes across strangely when pretending to be a gypsy woman (a performance I found reminiscent of Michael Scott, boss on the U.S. TV series "The Office," who would occasionally use ridiculously bad accents when imitating a stereotypical character). Nor is he physically the "broad-shouldered blacksmith" the reader anticipates. He merits a grade of B for this portrayal.

 

On the other hand, Zelah Clarke is a pleasing Jane. She made little impression on me at first, but she grew on me during those five-and-a-half hours; at some point, I realized that making little initial impression was a genuine aspect of Jane's character. When the script called for Jane to display her more emotional and/or forceful side, Clarke delivered. She gets an A-, running a close second (behind the 2006 Jane Eyre's Ruth Wilson) in my ranking of Jane Eyre portrayers.

 

Other cast members were almost uniformly capable, with only a couple of standouts. St. John Rivers's measured speech and tightly restrained emotions impressed me, as did the mean Lowood teacher Miss Scatcherd, whose abusive actions and cruel demeanor (along with her crow-black hair) put me in mind of Severus Snape.

 

As I mentioned earlier, some invented scenes were added to this production, usually to its detriment. Mr. Briggs, the London solicitor who announces an impediment to the Jane / Rochester wedding, appears in two new scenes. One shows Rochester engaging him to track down the missing Jane. That's a real false step for this production, as the book is told entirely from Jane's perspective; it includes nothing that she doesn't experience or imagine. Further needless additions were Blanche arriving at Thornfield on horseback and snubbing Mrs. Fairfax's greeting, and Jane confronting Rochester to ask why Grace Poole (upon whom he blamed his bedroom fire) is not in custody.

 

Some less-essential scenes are missing, doubtless for reasons of time. For instance, we don't see Helen Burns die; we just see her gravestone. In addition, details or locations of some scenes are altered. When Jane asks Rochester for leave, he and Blanche Ingram are involved in an apparent card trick, rather than playing billiards; when Jane says she wants to share her inheritance, all three of her Rivers cousins are present, rather than just St. John; when an innkeeper tells Jane how Thornfield Hall burned, they are in the hall's shell, rather than at the inn. Such changes don't affect the thrust of the tale.

 

Other changes do make one wince, though. When St. John is ready to tell Jane that he has learned her true identity, Bronte has him recite a long series of events without revealing that he knows she is at the center of them; thus she increases the dramatic tension. In the movie, they've barely sat down when Jane blurts out, "You know my name." Also, given the overall fidelity to the book, it's surprising that a few pieces of dialogue were radically changed. A sample: near the end, when Rochester says he wants a wife and asks Jane, "Is it news to you?", she says "No", whereas her book reply was "Of course."

 

I also found the ending a letdown. After lingering lovingly over this tale for hours, the movie jumps directly from Jane assenting to marry Rochester ("Most truly, sir") to a concluding voice-over beginning "We have now been married ten years." No telling of this surprising news to John and Mary (who is converted to Maria for the film); no appropriately revamped version of the final chapter's famous opening line, "Reader, I married him."

 

As accurate and relevant as those quibbles are, they don't detract much from this stunningly true rendition of Jane Eyre. If you fancy the book, find the time to savor this full-bodied treat.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Bronte's original language shines through in nearly every minute 
  • Consistently convincing cast forms a strong framework for the main characters  
  • Almost all scenes are included 

WEAKNESSES

  • Film lacks a glossy "cinema" feel 
  • Treatment is chopped into episodes, each with an introduction and credits 
  • The few invented scenes are unwelcome additions