Jane Eyre (2006): A Film from Masterpiece Theatre
(Revised review, September
My major quarrel with some major filmed versions of
Jane Eyre has been their length. Surely one could do little
justice to Brontë’s sprawling masterpiece in two hours (2011 Jane Eyre movie), much less in 97 minutes (1943 Jane Eyre movie) or even 62
minutes (1934 Jane Eyre movie).
“At last!” That was my happy thought when, browsing
through Netflix’s inventory, I discovered a 2006 “Masterpiece Theatre” production of Jane Eyre that clocks in at a stately four hours. Here was both the time and
the talent to convert my favorite book into a worthy film. I requisitioned the two-disc set at
After viewing the movie, I found that most reviewers
on Netflix had either adored its style or abhorred its infidelity to Brontë’s letter and spirit. My feelings
lie between those extremes. Its high production values and mostly excellent acting
make this a candidate for the title of "definitive Jane Eyre movie," but it is too flawed in other
ways; that title remains unclaimed.
The opening scene was puzzling: a sweeping camera shot
showing a girl alone in a desert. But all made sense when this was shown to be a product of Jane’s
imagination, fed by a book – a tome with which her monstrous cousin John then bludgeoned her. We were right
back in the story, and soon Jane was being locked in the scary Red Room and then brought to meet the
Reverend Brocklehurst. All seemed well.
Given a four-hour running length, I assumed this
production would linger sympathetically over Jane’s perilous childhood and her travails at Lowood. Those
character-forming experiences occupy nearly a fifth of the book ... but in 17 scant minutes, the grown-up
Jane was already in a carriage heading for Thornfield Hall! Young Jane was denounced as a liar at her first
public appearance at Lowood; Helen Burns was but a brief candle that flickered out. (Incidentally, it took me
a few moments to figure out why the child Jane looked so familiar. She was portrayed by the same girl
[Georgie Henley] who plays the youngest Pevensie sibling, Lucy, in the “Chronicles of Narnia”
Apart from the short shrift given those passages, I
was also concerned by the overly “artistic” camera work. Viewers looked down at young Jane from a great
height, while adults such as Brocklehurst loomed above us like giants, as did intricate religious artworks on
Lowood’s walls and ceilings. While these shifts brought visual interest, they nearly induced vertigo.
Thankfully, we found ourselves back on a level footing when her childhood was left behind.
An even greater concern, especially after reaching
Thornfield, were the changes in plot and dialogue. Allowances must be made when a long book (containing much
archaic speech) is converted to a film, but there is no excuse for changing feelings and meanings altogether.
For example, when Jane and Rochester are having their first conversation at Thornfield, he asks whether she
was happy when she painted the pictures he is examining. Bronte has Jane reply, “I was absorbed, sir; yes,
and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.” The
movie’s Jane merely looks befuddled and stammers that she was “not unhappy” – quite a
(To be fair to this film’s staff, I should mention
that in many spots, the script hews pleasingly closely to Brontë’s original language.)
New scenes created from whole cloth further mar the
proceedings, such as one in which Rochester persuades members of the fine society group to use a Ouija board.
I thought that might be taking the place of the “gypsy” scene, but it showed up later. Again, a significant
change was made there: Mr. Rochester did not play the gypsy role himself, but rather hid behind a curtain to
hear his guests’ conversations with a fortuneteller. Would it have been too hard for the actor playing
Rochester (Toby Stephens) to imitate a gypsy?
Stephens’s performance is a main bone of contention. I
found Ruth Wilson to be an utterly convincing and beguiling Jane: plain indeed, demure and subservient when
required of her, all business in a crisis, subtly but clearly emotional when her heart was touched for better
or worse. Marvelous! However, whether due to his own skills or the directors’ instructions, Stephens’s
Rochester strays far from the one Bronte depicts. Rather than the heavy-browed, burly “blacksmith” in the
book, he often carries himself as a preening, pose-striking, foppish cad. As much as Orson Welles played a
dramatically “heavy” Rochester, Stephens is Rochester Lite. Too little sturm und drang, too much like Hugh Grant in some underwritten comedy of
manners. Even his dog Pilot is boringly nonthreatening.
Most of the supporting actors acquit themselves well
enough; one is seldom conscious of their acting, which is as it should be. Blanche Ingram and her mother are
among the best-played characters. Rochester’s ward Adele is a great puzzlement, however. Brontë describes her
as “perhaps seven or eight years old,” and she is typically portrayed in film that way. Why would the
Masterpiece Theatre crew decide to make her more like 12? Her standard behaviors – squealing in her thick
French accent about beautiful dresses and such, dancing and twirling to impress visitors – are charming in a
young girl, sickeningly sweet in an adolescent.
Night scenes in the Hall are a strength of this
production. Jane rescuing Rochester from his flaming bed, or treading the hallways to find the source of the
eerie laughter, bearing a nervous but steady gaze – these carry the book’s mood well. I did find it
unfortunate that when the fire in his room has been extinguished, Rochester stands with his nightshirt open,
showing the nearby Jane his abs and chest; it looks like an intentional “cheesecake” shot.
Later, we see Bertha prowling the corridors; at least
we see her candle, but never her face. We also observe views from her attic window several times throughout
the film. Only after Rochester’s wedding to Jane is canceled, though, do we finally behold Bertha herself.
The book depicts her as a beastly, grotesque figure; in this production, she is a slim and attractive woman,
whose ferocity has a sudden onset.
Having saved so much time on Jane’s childhood story
lines, the writers take the luxury of letting some later scenes play out at length. When Jane returns to see
the dying Mrs. Reed, her cousins Georgiana and Eliza are present and engage in Brontë’s mutually insulting
dialogue. Once she has fled Thornfield and found refuge with the Rivers family, that entire clan (Diana,
Mary, and St. John) gets plenty of screen time. It’s gratifying to see the Jane – St. John relationship play
out more or less as written. There is also a short but worthwhile scene showing Rochester attempting to save
the doomed Bertha as Thornfield burns.
More than simply fleshing out Brontë’s work, though,
the writers continued to add their own flights of fancy in the latter part of the film. Some of the more
alarming introductions and changes:
Mr. Eshton, a barely mentioned character in
the book, prattles on about irrelevant topics (some of which concern an invented pair of frivolous
twin young society ladies ... whose unrealistic frivolity is later echoed by the Rivers
Rochester asks Blanche point-blank what she
wants [from their relationship].
- St. John finds Jane on the moors; she has not gone
begging in a village.
When she awakens in the Rivers house, Jane
apparently has amnesia.
St. John asks her to accompany him to
Africa and teaches her Xhosa (instead of India and "Hindostanee").
I can understand why a book such as Jane Eyre needs to be tweaked for a film – to remove some outdated language,
for instance. But why do the writers, producers, and/or directors (of other versions as well as this one)
feel that their plot ideas are so much better than the brilliant author’s?
Another sour note is the heightened physicality
between Jane and Rochester. After their wedding is called off, he is shown trying to persuade her to
accompany him to a far-off villa, while kissing her mouth vigorously and reaching down into her dress; she
lies beneath him panting. In that scene of the book, she shuns his physical advances. Near the end, when the
blinded Rochester talks of wanting a wife, he specifies someone who would share his bed every night and all
day if they chose, and she climbs atop him and wraps her legs around his as if to demonstrate their future
bed-sharing. A bit racy and out of character.
(Note: the following final-scene summary is based
on an email from site reader Ágnes Veronika Papp, who correctly pointed out that I was mistaken in thinking
it was a wedding scene.) The film ends happily, with many important characters gathering to have a group
portrait painted. Jane and Rochester are at the center, holding their two young children; surrounding them
are the Rivers sisters and their husbands, Adele, and several familiar servants. Early in the movie, the
child Jane was excluded from a Reed family portrait; as an adult, she opens her heart to so many people she
loves. A pleasant ending to an ambitious, significantly flawed, but sometimes outstanding film that will
entertain Jane Eyre newcomers even as it often exasperates
Winning title-role performance by Ruth
Four-hour run length enables inclusion of
scenes absent from other productions
Frequent (though far from universal)
fidelity to Brontë’s language
Dramatic camera work highlights interesting
angles and sets
Far too many extraneous plot changes and
Omission of much of Jane's
A different and sometimes unsatisfying spin