I have to preface this review to say that growing up, Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre was probably my favorite book, and it started me on a lifelong love affair with not only Victorian romantic fiction, but with Byronic heroes, of which the novel’s male protagonist Edward Rochester is a classic example. I also have to say that of all the various adaptations of the novel (including a musical!), the one that has always stood out in my mind leading up to Cary Fukunaga’s latest version (Focus Features and BBC Films), is the 1986 BBC miniseries with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton.
The story tells of the orphaned Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland), turned out from her aunt’s comfortable home and placed at Lowood school, a cold and cruel girls’ school, where young ladies receive a harsh but decent education, mainly to prepare them for a life of serving their social betters. Jane survives her time at Lowood (although others are not so lucky), and although the school, its headmaster and most of her teachers endeavor to eradicate Jane’s free spirit and resoluteness of mind, they are unsuccessful in breaking her. Treated harshly her whole life, Jane is strong, stern and dour—at least on the surface. But we learn that she is also bright, resolute, spirited and passionate.
We first meet Jane in this newest film adaptation caught in a torrential rainstorm having run away from a great gray mansion. Now an adult and taken in by St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot) and his two sisters. She refuses to tell her name, and only reveals that she wants nothing other than to find suitable work. We then learn of the years since her childhood through a flashback as Jane reflects on where she’s been and where she’s headed.
Where she has been is Thornfield Hall, owned by the and brooding Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds). It is there Jane finds herself teaching his young ward Adele Varens—and falling in love with the enigmatic Edward, all under the watchful eye of the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Dame Judith Dench). But Jane’s life receives a very harsh blow when a deeply buried secret long-buried in Rochester’s attic is revealed suddenly, and at the worst possible moment.
Although the film actually opens about two-thirds into the novel’s linear narrative, I enjoyed the altered structure of the film. It’s an interesting perspective from which to tell Jane’s story.
However, I liked far less the way the film shortcuts its way through Jane and Edward’s relationship, making it almost seem as if their love for each other materializes in a matter of days. We should be allowed at least to savor the slow build to their inevitable meeting of mind and heart. For example, there is a wonderful scene in the novel when Rochester appears surreptitiously, interrupting a party, in costume as a gypsy fortune teller. It is a pivotal moment, both in Edward and Jane’s relationship and in introducing a character that will cause the roof to fall in on it.
The scene as written in the novel is exquisite, and I cannot get out of my mind how beautifully it is played in the Dalton-Clarke BBC mini series. It is a terrible shame the director felt he could not expand the film (even slightly) beyond its two-hour to let the narrative breathe a little more.
Despite the extreme compression, the story is still beautifully told, and the performances are first rate. Michael Fassebender (Inglourious Basterds) broods well as the tormented and world-weary Edward Rochester, and Mia Wasikowsa (Alice in Wonderland) is excellent in the role of the plain, but passionate Jane.