Monday, October 09, 2006

BBC Jane Eyre - Episode 3 (REVIEW)


And so to the third (and penultimate) episode of the BBC's period adaptation of Jane Eyre ... and what a pleasing episode it was. Susanna White's direction seems to have gained in zing, zip and imagination as the series has progressed and we had some lovely visual sequences to feast our eyes on this time round. Most exotic of all were flashback references to Rochester's time in the Caribbean and his love affair with Bertha, evoked by a delightfully dreamy cacophony of vibrant colours, and of course, her own sensual beauty.

'Flashback' was in vogue this episode as Jane made her own foray into her sad childhood when she was forced to return to Gateshead, host to her misery at the hands of the callous Reed family. As Jane enters the house she is haunted by the sounds of her cruel childhood experiences. We learn that John Reed, her primary torturer as a child, is dead and gone, but thankfully we are left with Georgiana and Eliza, his two ill-natured sisters who constantly snap and snarl at each other in splendidly catty fashion. Tara Fitzgerald as wicked Aunt Reed gets to chew the scenery in an extensive dying scene, although as a sure sign of my own innate shallowness, I couldn't help but admire the marvellously detailed painted wallpaper in her bedchamber while her death-throes were in full throttle.

However, this particular Jane Eyre being very much a two-handed affair, while Jane is away we also still have scenes set at Thornfield with Rochester and the Ingram House Party - primarily to demonstrate how Rochester has split off from his guests to mope over Jane's absence. At one stage he confronts Blanche to ask her what she 'really' wants, but we never get to hear exactly what that it is, nor can we really hazard a guess from her rather blank but pretty features.

On Jane's return we meet Mr Eshton again, off to investigate twins who can mentally communicate even when many miles apart - Jane and Rochester are almost frothing over with glee at being reunited, and the reference is all too clear that THEY too share such a bond. This is made clearer still as the lovesick duo discuss the possibility of parting pending his marriage, which is such a shame, as Jane makes such a big deal of settling in so nicely to Thornfield on her return, even telling Rochester when they first meet up again that her home is wherever HE is - a bit of a 'whoah steady on there' moment, until you remember this IS Jane Eyre after all, one of the greatest love stories in British literary history - so no need to panic. Her love WILL be requited.

A nice touch to their budding romance is Rochester's genuine interest in Jane's past - 'the deep, dark forests' of her childhood memories as he calls it. There is a very real sense of mutual intellectual engagement enacted pleasingly by Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson - the latter barely able to wipe the loved-up smile off her face when she is in his presence. Of course Rochester cannot be so innocently joyous as we are reminded of his vivid past when he recounts his time in the Caribbean, describing it as seductive, mysterious, tantalising, dangerous - and again we see a profusion of scarlets, crimsons, pinks in flashback to his time there, red signifying Bertha in this production - and then his eyes flit anxiously to the dark tower where we (well, most of us probably by now) know she is imprisoned.

The sense that Bertha is watching events below is stepped up in this episode - we are aware of a figure watching through a window, accompanied by soft tinkling bells and lush but eery music. While the idea is a tad hackneyed, it is actually well-executed here to slightly chilling, even poignant effect. Particularly useful is the musical scoring which works extremely well in this episode - unlike the first two episodes I have to say. It's as though Rob Lane, the composer, really let rip with the romantic vibe, and it truly suits this section of the story.

At the half-way point through this hour-long episode we finally arrive at the lovelorn couple's eventual ardent declaration, preceded by what I consider to the most glorious passage in the entire novel, rendered well here by Ruth Wilson, when Jane floods forth with her feelings to an awed and moved Rochester. This is one of the most exciting and proto-feminist speeches in nineteenth century English literature - indeed, any literature, of any time - when Jane confronts Rochester with her desire to be free, to love, as any man, in spite of her being 'poor, obscure, plain, and little' now switched to 'poor, plain, obscure and little' - but quibbles aside, much is sourced almost direct from the novel, where Jane speaks so powerfully. Here there are a few adjustments for modern sensiblities, so for example, Rochester bids her become his equal through marriage, which is now telegraphed in the TV version by Jane's praise of her treatment at Thornfield as an 'equal'.

I am not usually one for seeking close adherence to a source text's original wording, but in this single instance, Jane's impassioned declaration of Selfhood is so intensely felt and strongly expressed, it would be a shame to meddle too far. Of course one forgets just how radical and effecting this novel was in its day. Here we had a heroine who acknowledged her sensual yearnings, who wanted to work and construct her own life, her own identity, who is damning of the foibles, fripperies and minutiae which consumed most women's lives at the time, trapped into a world of passive domesticity.

Jane and Rochester's final declarations of mutual love are set here in a damp, sunny glade. Toby Stephens's voice suddenly goes a little gruff and sore-sounding when declaring his own feelings for her, which half made me wish I could chuck the poor fellow a throat lozenge. He squeezes her close to his manly chest, and they finally kiss, and then kiss again, and again, before they run hand in hand through one of those impromptu CGI-ed thunderstorms complete with a quavering bright bolt of lightening that you sometimes get in TV land.

Just to be a true curmudgeon - was anyone else a little unimpressed with the happy couple's kissing style? It seemed to comprise a momentary smashing together of face and cheek at regular intervals, all well and good, but I was sure they kept missing each other's lips, which is clearly the primary object of the exercise. I hate to do this, but in comparison to the one shot we get of Rochester snogging the face off Bertha, Jane and Rochester's physical union seemed a little more staid and demure, despite their obvious mutual enthusiasm.

According to the golden rules of TV and cinema, Jane's blossoming love affair must instill a new sense of self-worth which is belied by her flourishing good looks and lustrous femininity, hence we have a slightly annoying scene where Ruth Wilson flounces around her bedchamber, long locks flowing, as she gazes lovingly at herself in a mirror. In fact this mirror is a rather laboured device throughout the series so far, charting Jane's self-esteem with her outward appearance, which is a very easily translatable behaviour of course. Jane drops her habitual dark clothing and dons a very pale almost-white-grey gown, reflecting her brighter mood. This is then mirrored at the end of the episode, once her dream-world has been sadly punctured, and she silently slips out of her brilliant white wedding dress and re-dresses herself in the gloomy grey garb we have come to associate with melancholic, sensible Jane.

We have forbodings of course that the wedding will not go well; kindly Mrs Fairfax's concern and irritation, Jane's nightmare and the rather scary moment when she senses someone is in her room at night and then finds her wedding veil has been torn. There is something all too desperate about Rochester's determination to march her uphill to her wedding in a sadly deserted church, and the news of his first marriage, when it comes from Briggs and then Mason, is far from surprising - more miserable than dramatic.

The same can be said for our eventual meeting with Bertha. Jane spots the red scarf, Bertha's symbol during this series, flapping in the open window. The look on her face is more disappointed than shocked - almost as though, like us, deep-down she knew this would happen all along. There is an inevitability to this turn of events which is captured well by her still, sad, tear-stained face.

Toby Stephens doesn't play Rochester as strident or hysterical or even particularly angered at how his dirty secret has finally come to light. He has the deflated air of a man who has finally been defeated, by himself. He recounts his misadventures in the Caribbean and we briefly see in flashback how Bertha descended into lunacy, as signified (a little crudely and chauvinistically perhaps) by her rapacious sexual appetites - and, most disturbingly, by a maniacal scene with Rochester, which darkly hints at a violent sexuality within their own tormented relationship.

Throughout his account, there is a strange three-pronged mark, livid and red, on Rochester's neck - did Bertha bite him, as she did her brother? Or did Toby Stephens have a rather frenzied encounter with his Phillishave that morning, which they forgot to conceal with make-up? Either way, the marks are distracting and disconcerting - a vivid reminder of the physical pain that has clearly been enacted in his relations with his 'wife.' At one point Rochester explains that he could have checked Bertha in to 'another' house he owns, where she would likely have lived and died a damp and sickly existence. Of course the fact he chose to incarcerate her instead in his bleak and gloomy North Tower does not especially salvage the situation, and I for one, was partly glad when Jane refused to open her bedchamber door to hear his pleas for mercy and a life of 'sin' which would at that time have condemned Jane Eyre as a sluttish outsider for the rest of her days.

And finally, two sweetly poignant moments stand out. In the church, as soon as Briggs and Mason explain how Rochester met his first wife in Jamaica, there is a fleeting look of mournful understanding on Jane's face, as she clearly recalls Rochester's embittered speech on the dangerously seductive qualities of that part of the world. She knows right then, that what they are saying is all too true. And then again, when Jane and Rochester return to Thornfield from the church, they are greeted merrily by the servants of the house with Adele, who shower them with corn and confetti - a pathetic irony in the circumstances.

Reviews of Jane Eyre, Episodes 1 and 2 and 4. Also Wide Sargasso Sea.


Anonymous said...

I have very much enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments about this adaptation.

I was rather puzzled by your remark that, in the original proposal scene, Rochester bids her [Jane] to become his equal through marriage. What he actually says is "My bride is here.....because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane will you marry me?" This seems to me to suggest that Rochester already considers Jane to be his equal before they are married. I find it strange that this speech was not used in the adaptation as, surely, it is a very modern sentiment that would fit this version very well.

I have to say that I was underwhelmed by Toby's rather fey Rochester and also by Sandy Welch's script. I would be interested to read your views on Welch's adaptation of North and South (which I thought, at least intitially was much more successful - now I'm rather more critical of what she did with the characters).

Gallivant said...

Thanks for your interesting remarks.

Yes, I too was a little underwhelmed by Stephens's Rochester - even though I consider Toby Stephens to be a very fine actor. And yes, I agree too that Welch's screenplay wasn't top-notch. The script occasionally lacked pizzazz, and seemed very ordinary at times ... and on occasion, the direction too erred on the side of lazy, I felt.

Looking back at former Welch script work ... I will re-visit North and South sometime soon, and properly review it. There was a lot I liked here, but I felt the adaptation lost momentum as the narrative progresses, and even felt a little flat at times. But I did enjoy it, and Daniela Denby-Ashe was hugely endearing as Margaret Hale - although absolutely nothing how I imagined her to be honest.

I preferred Welch's screenplay for Dickens's Our Mutual Friend -- which is another fine adaptation I should return to, sometime soon.

But it must be said, that in comparison to Andrew Davies, for example, Welch's adaptations seem to lack fluidity, although they are hugely competent.

I might start a series of articles sometime soon critiquing 'adaptors' - so any comments/criticisms would be welcomed.

anitadc said...

Re. your remarking on your "innate shallowness" because you admire the wallpaper while Aunt Reed is dying - you're not alone - I too was fixated on the wallpaper thinking "Wow, did they really have wallpaper like that in the 19th century? Cool!"