TV film review: Jane Eyre (1997), directed by Robert Young
I thought I should get the Brontë Challenge properly underway, and start watching some of those adaptations, and as I fancied something that’s not 3+ hours long, I decided to watch the 1997 TV adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, starring Ciarán Hinds and Samantha Morton. This was my second favourite adaptation a while back and then it sort of fell out of favour a bit but now … I’m not so sure.
Let’s take it from the top.
It begins in medias res with little Jane being locked in the Red Room. When she’s left alone she looks bemused rather than scared, but has hallucinations aplenty. I love the colour of her green dress, which almost – but not quite – can detract me from the stilted acting. Mr Brocklehurst looks truly nasty, like a Scrooge from hell or something. She’s promptly sent off to Lowood, which doesn’t seem to be such a bad place, because the only thing we get to know of the horrors is Jane’s voice-over saying how terrible a place it is. Whatever happened to show, not tell? The only hint is Mr Brocklehurst having a go at Jane for her accidentally dropping the slate in the school room. That’s pretty much it.
Helen Burns seems to be a brunette and her acting skills are about as stilted as Jane’s. She doesn’t seem to be in bad health, until the typhus comes along and kills her off. Cut from her corpse to a drawing of her (now ginger – Jane has a funny memory, it seems) made by adult Jane eight years later. Jane has now turned into Samantha Morton, who is small and has a pixie-like quality to her, so she’s pretty spot-on physically – if perhaps a little too pretty. Jane’s fed up with Lowood and wants a change, so just after 12 minutes into the film she arrives at Thornfield.
I quite like that fact that they get the boring bit over and done with in 12 minutes, because to me, Jane Eyre only becomes really interesting when she gets to Thornfield meets Rochester. Thornfield ’97 is a place which is reminiscent of Haddon Hall, except it isn’t. There are red stones around the doorways and windows, and Haddon Hall doesn’t have that. Mainly because the exterior is Naworth Castle in Cumbria, with the interior from Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. I like the outside, it’s Thornfieldy, but the inside could do with a bit more gloom.
Mrs Fairfax we’ve all seen before – the great Gemma Jones has been in a few things, from murderous double-agent in Spooks to the kind but firm nurse at Hogwarts, and of course the mother of both Bridget Jones and the Dashwoods. She does a fine job as the old housekeeper. One of these days I shall have to compare the adaptations and pick out a “best of” cast. Adèle Varens feels a little subdued. She doesn’t get an awful lot of screen time, but I prefer her to the other child actors.
And then there’s Rochester (Ciarán Hinds). He and Morton have a good sort of chemistry between them. Rochester brings out the feistiness in Jane, and we know she’s the sort of woman who’ll fight back. The moustache can go, and so can those baggy trousers. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, yes, his bum looks big in those. Positively humongous, especially in the scene by the snooker table where Jane tells him she has to visit her aunt. He does wear another kind of trousers as well, which suit him much better, like the black ones when he’s trying on that red waistcoat.
Now, as much as Hinds makes me fall terribly in love with Rochester all over again, his portrayal is a bit too commanding and he barks a tad much. (By the way, speaking of barking, Pilot is a wonderfully fwuffy doggie!) Still, the passion and intensity is there and the post-fire bedroom scene … is it really that hot in the book? I think I’m really starting to warm to it, you know, it’s absolutely smokin’! (Puns intended, and yes, I’ll stop it.) He does come across as bordering on creepy in some places, like the end of that bedroom scene, and when he talks of Céline Varens. Still, he manages to keep it on the safe side.
Also, there are some terrific lines in this adaptation. For instance, “Seeing as you’re the governess, I thought you might explain to me the concept of the 28-day week,” and the bit shortly after where’s annoyed she’s written to everyone except him, the master of the house: “No doubt even Pilot got a letter!”
We don’t see a lot of Grace Poole. We see her briefly when Jane’s attending Richard Mason, and then not until the wedding party come crashing in. There’s no gypsy woman, although Blanche Ingram seems to be trying on her palmistry skillz on Rochester when Mason makes his first unwanted appearance. Gateshead Revisited is skipped completely. Jane says she has to go, Rochester gives her seven days or he’ll come get her back himself, and then four weeks have gone. There’s no mention of her uncle in Madeira, or that Mrs Reed has had a change of heart on her death bed. Shame, really.“I’d be even happier if you shaved off that snot-gatherer, dearest Edward!”
There was a part where I had a genuine moment of squee. It’s the morning after the proposal, Jane is unsure if she has dreamt it all or if it was real. Rochester arrives, and when she greets him with an uncertain “good morning, Mr Rochester” he smiles and whispers “Edward” and then calls her “Mrs Rochester” … Wow, what a moment! 😍 Mrs Fairfax isn’t thrilled, but we never get an explanation for her concern. When she’s asked by bridal Jane if she approves, she gives her a brooch for good luck. That is all. She says later that she knows Grace Poole had a patient but had no idea that person was Mrs Rochester.
Unfortunately, of course, there’s the itty bitty problem of Mad Bertha, hair like one of those toy trolls from a few years ago, lodging in a room with mattress-covered walls. No asylum for her, and they were truly horrendous places back in those days, so Rochester, even though he was tricked into marrying her and has lived in hell the past 15 years because of it, doesn’t want her to go there. He obviously cares for her, and that’s one of the things that make me love the character so much.
Jane leaves, collapses on a moor and is picked up by St John Rivers, and here’s another Spooks link: it’s Rupert Penry-Jones! Good actor, yes, but he’s no St John Rivers. St John is an eerily cold and detached man in the book, with slight undertones of sociopath. RPJ’s version is cute and cuddly and does actually look like it wouldn’t take a lot for him to fall in love with Jane, in fact, he’s halfway there already. Fail! There’s also just one sister (Diana) and no Hannah. Not to mention Jane never inherits any money or finds out the Rivers are her cousins, which is a real shame they’ve left out. Jane is asked to be a missionary’s wife and go to India, keeps hearing Rochester in her head and heads off. Thornfield is ruined, Bertha’s dead, Rochester’s blind (and turns from “OMG my wonderful Jane is back!” to cranky “I don’t want a companion!” a bit too quickly), and they live happily ever after. Their first-born, he could see himself in his son, but the older child walking next to them appears to be a girl, but who cares when there’s a happy ending?
Overall, I really enjoyed it. Rochester’s too angry for my liking, but everything else about him makes up for it – well, everything except the baggy trousers and the moustache. Jane has spirit and she stands up for herself. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Rochester’s way of making Jane jealous does feature him singing with Blanche (if those are truly the actors singing themselves) and having the wedding charade, and I really don’t blame Jane for walking away. We get a clear sense of why she falls in love with him, but perhaps not quite as much why he falls in love with her – perhaps just one of those love at first sight things, which I’m all for anyway.
It’s over and done in less than two hours (approx 1h 45m) so of course things had to be skipped – it’s a terribly long book. The thing that bugged me a few times was when they had a voiceover going over either the previous scene or the next for a bit too long. Normally, you might have someone say a few words, a short sentence, and then it’s cut to the next scene. Here, they either started the next scene in a voiceover but lingered on the previous one for too long (Jane hiding under the bed in the Red Room) or continued the dialogue from the previous scene too long into the next one (Jane leaving Thornfield and a few others). Also, in parts, it felt as if they were playing the characters, not being them, as in, it felt as if there could be a sign up saying “hush now, can’t you see we’re busy being actors?” Maybe I over-analysed it.
Either way, I’m loving it, and I’ve already got the next adaptation lined up. Rochester OD ftw!