Monday, October 16, 2006

Review: Jane Eyre, BBC1 - Episode Four


The final episode of the BBC's Jane Eyre was a decidedly mixed bag and rounds off a similarly mixed, though enjoyable series. We have had strong acting performances and lush cinematographic delights but also a stolid, rather uninspiring interpretation of Charlotte Bronte's classic novel and at times, a far from dazzling display of directorial imagination from Susanna White, who promised so much with last year's triumphant Bleak House.

Here White clearly felt it necessary to spice up what is generally perceived to be the dullest passage of events in the novel, at the Rivers household, with a fractured, non-linear narrative, utilising multiple flashbacks, which strive to keep Rochester on-screen for as long as possible without destabilising narrative coherence. Unfortunately the Rochester/Jane chemistry failed to sizzle, despite (and perhaps because of) extraordinarily determined efforts to ramp up their sexual connection. Indeed, there were admittedly a few too many moments in this final episode where my eyes strayed to the remote control and I had to bravely resist the very real attraction of Prime Suspect, the excellent crime drama, which was airing on ITV.

This was not the worst episode of the series. That rather dubious honour falls to the opener, which brushed aside much of Jane's childhood, in its unseemly haste to get to the 'action' - the central romance between Jane and Rochester. After the myriad media and PR articles I've waded through regarding this adaptation, I've come to the conclusion that BBC producers were all too desperate to recreate the famous 'Darcy' effect of 1995's superb (and superior) Pride and Prejudice, positioning Rochester as the ultimate Romantic Hero. To some extent this has worked, judging by comments circulating on the Internet, and indeed an extremely swooning conversation I overheard between three ladies in a restaurant on Saturday, which was bordering on fanatical stalker-mode - Toby Stephens beware! But Colin Firth's crown as king of the 'Classic' romance has not been truly dislodged here - barely even struck a mildly glancing blow, if last night's romantic denouement was anything to go by.

Indeed, the high point of both the series and the central couple's 'chemistry' occured early in Episode Two, soon after Jane rescued Rochester from a potential fiery grave in his own bedchamber. And in truth, the best of the pair has been epitomised by their teasing verbal exchanges, expressing a meeting of minds, rather than those scenes deadset on emphasising their passionate physical proximity. Late in Episode Four, Rochester tells Jane they are not the sort to be 'platonic'. Sorry, but no. Not in this reviewer's opinion at any rate.

And there is evidence a-plenty in this episode where flashbacks, bathed in the unsubtle glow of 'sexy' red light, depict Rochester clumsily astride Jane, muttering sweet nothings while caressing her neck. Frankly I was relieved when these flashbacks faded to the blue-toned reality of Jane's present life with the Rivers. Jane sobs in frustration and grief at losing her past life and love. In this sense, the flashbacks served a purpose in bolstering narrative momentum, but otherwise I found them embarrassing and a little unnecessary (and most certainly not as a point of 'prudishness').

For me the problem was Rochester - well, Toby Stephens - who suddenly, most unexpectedly, struck me as LESS Rochester, and so very, very 'TOBY-ish' with his inimitable talent for super-fine, snarky lip-curling. This was all the more unaccountable, as Toby was far from any lip-curling antics in his current impassioned, loved-up state - and to be fair, this was the first time I had found myself recalling his more intertextual qualities since, well, Episode One - which surely says alot in favour of his portrayal of Rochester for most of the series at any rate.

Less jarring were the flashbacks which depicted Jane's aborted wedding: the bible falling to the ground as the news is broken in church; Jane in her wedding regalia running upstairs at Thornfield leaving a trail of crushed, soft, white petals from her posy; and her departure from Thornfield - although this was slightly marred by her catching sight of the red scarf wafting from a window in the North Tower, which has been deployed as a rather over-done metaphor for Bertha's presence throughout the series. Jane also appeared to emulate aspects of Bertha in this episode, as she too is seen to watch from a lead-latticed window at the Rivers household - perhaps signifying that a marriage to St. John Rivers would be a similar incarceration, a confinement of her free spirit.

Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes with the Rivers - far more than the supposed dramatic clinchers featuring Rochester. Having rescued Jane from her destitute, near-death state on bleak, isolated moorland, (a scene mildly reminiscent of the opening of Episode One with a young Jane wandering through a desert), the Rivers family are portrayed here with bustling comfort - apart from St. John, played admirably well here by Andrew Buchan, who is a darker, stiller presence compared to his lively sisters Diana and Mary.

Indeed, Buchan has proved to be one of the stand-out performers of the entire series. St. John's exchanges with Jane make no attempt to 'electrify' and are consequently more natural and realistic in tone, eliciting excellent performances and a heartfelt, friendly repartee from both Buchan and Ruth Wilson (Jane). We have a powerful sense of St. John as a fundamentally good man; a man, who Jane informs him in a forthright manner, 'trembles' when Miss Oliver (who he is in love with) enters the room, while he himself admits that his 'skin may burn with fever' but he is a cold man, controlled by his puritanical zeal to pursue Godly works.

He emerges as a strongly sympathetic character - perhaps more so than Bronte herself intended - and the scene where he informs Jane of her new-found fortune and relations (himself and his sisters) was the best of the entire episode. Jane's unbridled joy is delightful, infectious ... but we never doubt the sagacity of her decision not to marry St. John. This is distinctly unlike the (perhaps) woefully miscast St. John Rivers of the 1997 ITV series of Jane Eyre, where the delectable Rupert Penry-Jones was rejected in favour of a decidedly unappealing Rochester, played here by the usually formidable Ciaran Hinds.

Jane contemplates her decision, her life, her continuing desire for Rochester, atop a precariously high rocky escarpment, set amidst gloriously bleak and wild Derbyshire countryside - a scene strangely reminiscent of a more recent Pride and Prejudice outing, the 2005 film, where Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet stands perilously aloft a vertiginously steep cliff-face, overlooking similar Romanticised scenery, gusting eddies of wind threatening to dash her to her doom at any given moment. Ironically, this scene was often described by critics as a little too Brontean for an Austen adaptation - and yet here we have a definitive Bronte adaptation appearing to emulate an Austen.

Back at Thornfield (her decision made off-screen), we have a disconsolate Jane eyeing a woefully burned pile of ruins and in flashback she is told the sad tale of Bertha's demise and the fire that destroyed Rochester's home. Oddly, given the highly dramatic source material, these scenes are determinedly dull and underwhelming. Bertha, clad in a voluminous white night-gown trails a flaming wedding dress (oh, the symbolism) along a shadowy corridor. Then, half-heartedly pursued by Rochester, whose face is expressive more of mild peevishness than stark panic in spite of the circumstances, she flings herself from the castle battlements. Her descent is matched by the soaring fall, then flight, of a white barn-owl, before the camera reveals her prostrate form on the ground below, arms outstretched, face down. The scene is clunkily-crafted and fails to excite.

Jane is next seen wandering through a misty forest complete with tall, dark trees and vaguely creepy music, but ... all is well. We encounter a pleasant limestone house now occupied by a limping, blind Rochester. Jane brings him a tray of tea-things and then combs his hair, much in the manner of a nursemaid attending to her patient in a retirement home. The effect is stultifying, even chilling, so it is not a surprise when Rochester swiftly and earnestly begs for a wife instead, much to Jane's smirking pleasure.

They embrace, kiss, hold each other, and the camera pans to the fast-flowing river, symbolic (presumably) of the passing of time as we next see them, children in tow, and the Rivers in attendance, preparing a family portrait sitting. They are to be painted amidst an ordered, manicured garden, with a sedate red-brick house, a far cry from the Gothic, ruggedly masculine splendours of Thornfield, serving as a backdrop to their pleasant party. There is a final 'framing' of this parting shot with a slightly tacky floral border - perhaps a heavy-handed symbolic signifier that Jane's 'feminine' has finally exerted control, she has mastered her own narrative, and Rochester has been tamed into Victorian domesticana.

See Reviews of Jane Eyre: Episodes 1, 2 and 3. Also Wide Sargasso Sea.

NOTE - this review is repeated below, without the title, as for some strange and inexplicable reason I have been informed that some readers cannot access this review WITH the title included (??? ... beats me) - so apologies for the 'double' post in this instance. 'Gallivant.'


Anonymous said...

I disagree. Completely. This is a typically "objective" review, indeed: Just to trample down everything that could be perceived as more than acceptable by the audience... I DO LOVE this Jane Eyre adaptation - as a JE-novel fan I more than heartily welcome and appreciate Toby Stephens´performance. He is THE Rochester I always have had in mind while reading the book (my favourite one). And as to the "kissy scenes" - they are sweet and heartbreaking at the same time , doing NO HARM to the novel... in the contrary!

Gallivant said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the adaptation. If you read all my reviews of Jane Eyre you will see that I enjoyed a lot of it - but not all. I believe it could have been more adventurous.

As for this being a 'typically "objective" review' - to quote yourself - I would never claim it to be so. Indeed, I think all reviews, opinions (including your own of course) are wholly subjective - the product of our own personal experiences.

I'm glad you love Stephens as Rochester. He is a remarkably fine actor and I enjoy watching him. There were moments I found jarring in his performance as Rochester but much I loved too.

What I love about all adaptations is how they bring forth diverse interpretations and visualisations of a novel - different to our own, which are equally diverse of course - and how we can debate, discuss these. I am never over-concerned about the integrity of the novel in all of this. Once a book has been published it has become separate from its author's control and can, and should, be interpreted freely. There is no possible way to 'harm' a novel in my opinion. It remains an integral whole, a certain type of experience all of its own. The novel is one thing; the adaptation is another. And discussing our reactions and interpretations to both is great fun!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply I had scarcely awaited. I hope my previous rather emotional and over-spontaneous reaction did not offend you - it was not my intention. Nothing personal...
Sorry, but I really have not read anything else written by you - so take my reaction just as an isolated outcry of an ardent Tobyfan who simply bumped at this one review of yours, by accident, while ploughing Internet on the search for ANYTHING concerning JE and, especially, Toby Stephens. Negative statements concerning this topic really hurt me as if my very own child was attacked on.
The JE story has become part of my life since I read it for the first time at my 17 ... Edward Rochester is... well... a sort of masculine "femme fatale" to me: all life looking for someone like him - vainly,of course. I at least hoped for some "visual" implementation to be comforted by... In spite of many movie and TV adaptations it seemed to me like hopeless "waiting for Rochester". Untill this last BBC adaptation: Toby´s Rochester got me to my knees - not only because of his brilliant and apt actor performance, but chiefly thanks to the effluence of his outward and inward qualities. IMHO, he not only PLAYED Rochester, he HAS BEEN Rochester... And he will always stay Rochester to me.
Yours - Jane E.

JPatterson said...

Bravo, Gallivant, for your delightful and insightful review. Your eloquence was much enjoyed, even if you did not use the words "dismal", "appalling", or "sad, sad, very sad". I look forward to reading more by you in the future.

Gallivant said...

Thank you for your kind comment.
I enjoyed parts of this production, but felt it could have been a lot better, a lot more adventurous.