Jane Eyre (2006): A Film from Masterpiece Theatre

(Revised review, September 2012)

 

My major quarrel with some major filmed versions of Jane Eyre has been their length. Surely one could do little justice to Bronte’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 once.

 

 

After viewing the movie, I found that most reviewers on Netflix had either adored its style or abhorred its infidelity to Bronte’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” movies.)

 

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 difference!

 

(To be fair to this film’s staff, I should mention that in many spots, the script hews pleasingly closely to Bronte'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. Bronte 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 Bronte’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 Bronte’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 sisters).
  • 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 devotees.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Winning title-role performance by Ruth Wilson 
  • Four-hour run length enables inclusion of scenes absent from other productions 
  • Frequent (though far from universal) fidelity to Bronte's language 
  • Dramatic camera work highlights interesting angles and sets 

WEAKNESSES

  • Far too many extraneous plot changes and additions 
  • Omission of much of Jane's childhood 
  • A different and sometimes unsatisfying spin on Rochester