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TV Preview: Masterpiece Theatre’s Jane Eyre

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Airing over the next two Sundays as a part of PBS’s long-running Masterpiece Theatre, is a brand new version of Jane Eyre.  Or, at the very least, it’s new-to-you because while it’s aired in Britain, on the BBC, this is its first trip across the pond.  This adaptation stars Ruth Wilson as Charlotte Brontë’s title character and Toby Stephens as the inimitable Edward Rochester.

Most people are aware of the story, Jane Eyre. Abandoned to a cruel school by her family as a child, she grows up, becomes a teacher, and goes to work as a governess at Thornfield Hall, for the mysterious and moody Edward Rochester.  Despite mysterious goings-on at Thornfield, and a rocky start to their relationship, Jane and Rochester fall in love, only to have Rochester’s past come back to haunt him.  The relationship is threatened, looks doomed, but… well, that’s enough of the plot.  Needless to say, the story is often melodramatic, at times spooky, but not wholly without a sense of humor.

Certainly the BBC did not skimp in any way on the production budget, the sets are wonderful, the clothes perfect, and all the little details exactly right.  The acting, too, is good, with relative-newcomer Ruth Wilson more than able to carry the burden of such a large role. 

However, there is still something about the first two hours of the miniseries that fails to truly click.  Possibly the problem lies in the overall weight of the production.  Jane Eyre is anything but light fare, and at a running time of four hours, this entire production is in danger of collapsing in upon itself.  It’s not without its light-hearted moments and its humor, but at times all the pieces conspire to form a miniseries that is so crushing it can hardly stand. 

Thankfully, the second half of the miniseries seems to shake the weight of the first two hours, or at the very least runs fast enough to avoid its crushing weight.  It is only in the second half of the film that what is just around the corner is less obvious, and is more exciting to watch take place.  It is true that a great number of people watching will already know the story, and thus know what is going to happen, but even so, the second half is more enjoyable than the first.

Highlights of the miniseries include many of the scenes between Jane and Rochester, particularly where it becomes evident early on that the two are falling in love and the moments of their courtship.  Additionally, Jane’s interactions with Rochester’s friends in the first part of the miniseries play out wonderfully (as does the scene with the fortuneteller) as does Jane’s life upon leaving Thornfield.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the entire endeavor actually appears in the press release for the miniseries.  They quote Donna Marie Nudd in the 2001 Norton Critical Edition of Jane Eyre as asking numerous questions about the novel, one of which is “why has there only been one film or television adaptation with a heroine most people would consider plain?”  Shockingly, the Press release states that this “shortcoming” is “remedied in this Masterpiece Theatre production.”  This is fascinating because they’re referring to their star as looking “plain” which is tantamount to calling her ugly.  This should, at the very least, greatly displease Ruth Wilson, and is an incredibly odd statement to make about one’s star.  And, I think in this case, untrue. 

Leaving that aside, this new production of Jane Eyre has a lot to recommend it:  a good story, a cast that performs at a high level, and wonderful production values.  It is, often, a little much, but that may simply be an attempt to better fit itself in with the original work on which it is based.  Though more would have to be omitted from the novel than is here, an hour shorter running time may have made all the difference in this production. 

All fans of Jane Eyre, the time period, and the genre will most likely enjoy this Masterpiece Theatre two-parter, even if this version of Jane Eyre does not become their immediate favorite. 

Jane Eyre on Masterpiece Theatre airs Sunday, January 21st (part one) and Sunday, January 28th (part two).  Check your local PBS stations for listings. 

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • DEW

    And the Timmothy Dalton version – nearly 6 hours —did we forget? Only the BEST Rochester I’ve ever seen and I saw George C. Scott and one other;

  • Bliffle

    I did not intend to watch this Jane Eyre, but now, having stumbled upon it in the wee hours while restless, I am hooked. The trenchant dialogues are presented in a sensible and attractive manner that draws one back to the story and engages ones interest. Bravo! Much better than the dreadfully trite delivery one commonly sees in TV dramas (I suppose todays TV actors are actually taught to be as poor as they seem). For one thing, a person can actually hear and understand what they say, which is a blessed change from the typical muttered enunciation of, say, a “CSI” impersonator.

    As for the ‘plainness’ of the actress, Ruth Wilson, her appearance was quite welcome to this viewer, who,upon spending many years, almost a lifetime, studying beauty, can confirm what more experienced men reported long ago, that beauty is a consequence of character, intention and intelligence more than an accident of physiognomy.

  • RoseMary Bolivar

    I thought that it is a very good production of the film Jane Eyre. Ruth Wilson is a pretty, great actress, which shouldn’t be claimed as ‘plain’. Toby Stephens plays his part well, leaving mysterious questions in the air. Altogether it was interesting, suspenseful, mysterious, and very good. I rest my case.

  • Molly

    I happened upon this as did Biffle above and can only allude to the obsession I seem to have been overtaken by…far from expected, for sure.

  • Lisa Bernardin

    OmiGOSH – I LOVED this movie. Really amazing scenes, cast, dialogue, acting. I thought it perfect in EVERY way. Long? Are you kidding?? At the end I wanted more! Bronte herself would be absolutely captivated by this production of her novel. I say thank you, thank you, thank you to all involved in bringing this production forth – it was worth every bit of your effort and is a shining achievement. MORE please!!

  • Rita

    Being a Vic Lit Nut I must admit this was a good adaptation. What I enjoyed the most was it showing the passion they had for each other especially in the scenes when Jane now away from Thornfield is thinking back on those last moments with Edward. It was a beautiful version. I thought nothing could come close to the Timothy Dalton, Zelah Clark version. Not only were they amazing the story was told over 11 episodes. BUT this version definitely stands on its own. As far as Ruth Wilson being “plain”, she may have played plain but she was nothing short of lovely..

  • TV and Film Guy

    I totally agree that they made Wilson look as plain as possible, but I wouldn’t characterize her as looking plain, particularly the way that the release made it all sound.

  • maddy

    I think Ruth Wilson is beautiful, and I found this adaptation wonderful.

  • 8

    Love this version very much. Wish it were as long as the Timothy Dalton version. Great escape after a long hard day in the real world.

  • Kathryn

    I was saddened and disappointed that they took the name of my God in vain in this adaptation of Jane Eyre. I only got as far as Jane rising out of the mist and unseating the rider from his horse when this happened. I refuse to support any more movies that use God’s name for an expletive. I believe that Charlotte Bronte would have strongly objected to her story being used to demean Christ.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Kathryn, it’s amazing you get through daily life if a TV show upsets you that easily. Your God is a big boy. I’m sure he can take it – why don’t you try?

  • TV and Film Guy

    Kathryn, everyone has to do what they feel is appropriate in such a situation. I am of the opinion that one should be open to other ideas and ways of thinking, even if they don’t mesh with one’s own views. However, if you wish to shun that which does not immediately fall into your sphere of comfort that is your choice.

  • mss

    I think this is the worst film adaptation I’ve ever seen of Jane Eyre–and I think I’ve seen every one of them going back to Orson Welles. Although the production values were nice, the internal logic of the scenes was lacking, the dialog terribly mutilated, and the two stars seemed to share no spark. Toby Stephens looks completely out of place and time and seems possessed of only one expression. For him, as you say in the first paragraph, Rochester is indeed inimitable. Compare his performance to George C. Scott’s, or Timothy Dalton’s (a production that captured the fire of the dialog).

  • teresa in Alabama

    I stumbled upon this movie also. I never watch this station. I thought it was a beautiful movie but i couldn’t believe we had to wait a whole week to see the end of it. it should have been the next night. Try to do better in doing this and more people will watch masterpiece theater on pbs. I kept waiting for Jane to wear something pretty instead of that awful dress all the time. didn’t she have any more clothes. I thought she wasn’t ugly but was plain. I could see why the master wouldn’t like those rich girls. That is the way most rich people act. You got that right. I am glad the master is falling in love with her because she is real not fake. I hope i remember to watch next week. But will probably forget. sorry.

  • moonspinner

    dr. dreadful
    its a wonder your making it at all in this world without God in your life. better be careful how you make fun of him. remember he is bigger than you are.
    the movie would have been better without the cursing in it. please don’t do this and you will have greater success.
    thanks for speaking up for God, Kathern. its about time somebody did.