The new BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre, broadcast tonight, has been hotly anticipated, and strongly tipped by numerous magazine and newspaper articles here in the UK as this Autumn's red hot period romance. TV critics galore seem to be literally panting over the thought of Toby Stephens (Rochester) sporting a tousled, windswept wig and tight breeches whilst coming over all sultry with the latest 'plain Jane' Eyre - who, as it turns out, is never quite so plain as we're led to believe. This adaptation is definitely keen to sell the sexual attraction between the central romantic duo. Indeed, Jane's abuse-ridden childhood is fairly charged through at a fine gallop to ensure we get an adult Jane to Thornfield Hall and her first melodramatic encounter with a disgruntled Rochester on a chill, foggy day, as soon as is narratologically feasible, without completely confusing the poor viewer.
For all this, I couldn't help thinking that the much-truncated Lowood school sequences were still potentially confusing for a Jane Eyre 'novice' - we barely meet poor long-suffering Helen Burns, which somewhat diminishes the impact of her sad, untimely demise. Disappointing too are the opening scenes with young Jane languishing in a fantastical desert (supposedly symbolising her isolation) and again when she is banished to the Red Room, a terrifying experience in the novel and brilliantly enlivened in the 1996 Zeferelli filmic adaptation, with a junior Jane captured superbly by a soulful Anna Paquin.
This version's junior Jane is none other than Georgie Henley - little Lucy from last year's blockbuster The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. One gets the feeling that Georgie was signed on first by the producers, and Ruth Wilson (older Jane) was partly chosen because of her strong physical resemblance to the child - although Wilson has many other glowing attributes to recommend her too, with a strong performance and subtly expressive demeanour. She is an improvement on Georgie, who is too round-eyed and jolly - and possibly a little too young as well.
There are two decent scenes from this version of Jane's otherwise disappointing 'childhood' sequences, which warrant mention. First there is a small moment when the loathsome Reed family are seated en tableau, dolled up to the nines, awaiting their family portrait, completely ignoring wee Jane, sat alone on the window seat. More affecting still is the famous moment when Jane is forced to stand alone on a stool at Lowood, branded a liar in front of her schoolmates by the heinous Mr Brocklehurst. The director Susanna White has recreated this scene with real pathos.
Thornfield is represented by a suitably splendid Haddon Hall (Derbyshire). Mrs Fairfax (Lorraine Ashbourne) is too cheery for my liking. Far better the slightly harrassed demeanour of Gemma Jones in the 1997 ITV version. Adele seems too old for her part, and indeed, the only half-decent Adele I have ever seen in a Jane Eyre adaptation is Josephine Serre in the 1996 film version.
But, most importantly, does Toby Stephens truly cut a swaggering enough dash in his breeches as moody Rochester? He is a handsome sod, that's for sure. And certainly his arrival does breathe fresh life into this production. His attraction to Jane is fairly obvious here, and it is interesting that we are certainly set to see more of the cut and thrust of their verbal exchanges than is common in contemporary TV romance. This is one of the best-loved 'meeting of minds' in romantic fiction, and this adaptation is set fair to relay this to us.
Even so, there is a slight sense of staleness in this particular couple's repartee ... a feeling that this is too well-worn, too well-known ... we've been here before, and the actors seem to know this too. It's obviously hard to inject freshness and vitality into a pairing which has become so iconic and beloved by audiences and readers the world over. Worse still, there is a slightly trite moment (which is taken straight from the novel) when Rochester studies Jane's dark, surreal sketches with intense interest ... and it is all too clear (and cliched) that the dark, broody man recognises his soulmate. How can an adapter make this moment fresh for a modern audience, when this is the source material for a 1001 formula romances - even though this is the original, the real McCoy? It's a tough ask. But perhaps a little more adventurous spirit, a will to approach the material with renewed vigour, was needed at this juncture.
Cinematographically there is much to recommend here. Colours are lush, suitably sombre-toned and Gothic, editing is fast-paced. There is a rather unsubtle motif in play - a red scarf occasionally wafting in the breeze from a window in the North Tower, where all of us who have read the novel know, lurks poor mad Bertha. It is a neat signification device but a little too obvious - red signifying danger and of course fiery passion, the tumultuous sexual journey which led to Bertha's eventual incarceration, and of course, a foreshadowing of her final inflammatory demise.
Overall this is highly watchable, if a little unoriginal in scope and treatment. Maybe it fares poorly in contrast to the BBC's triumphant Bleak House, broadcast in Autumn 2005. I am surprised that some previewers in the press were hailing this production as a continuation of that particular vein of excellent form, when in truth - based on this first episode - this adaptation falls short, even if both productions share the same director - although notably Susanna White shared direction responsibilities with Justin Chadwick during Bleak House.
Perhaps this is one Jane Eyre too many - albeit enjoyable for comparison purposes, and of course, it's a cracking yarn. But there is a sense here that no fresh approaches, new angles on such a well-told tale are being explored here, which is a shame ... of course, there are three more episodes to persuade me otherwise. But on first impressions, I must surprise myself with a continued preference for the 1996 Zeferelli film version, starring a growling, morose William Hurt as Rochester and a forlorn, sad-eyed Charlotte Gainsbourgh as Jane. The 1997 ITV version also stars a fine Jane in the form of Samantha Morton, but is badly let down by an over-the-top performance from Ciaran Hinds as Rochester, who bellows and rants throughout, while decked out in a devastatingly unattractive bushy black moustache which quivers and quakes on his top lip like a startled animal.
See Reviews of Jane Eyre, Episodes 2 and 3 and 4. Also Wide Sargasso Sea.