Monday, October 02, 2006

Jane Eyre - BBC1, Episode 2 (REVIEW)


I thought I'd review the second episode of the new BBC series Jane Eyre - and indeed, seeing as it as one of the major British TV 'adaptation events' of the year, it merits an extensive episode-by-episode re-cap.

This episode was MUCH better than the first. The two main leads, Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens as Rochester meshed much more convincingly here than the debut episode when the romantic 'tension' of their relationship seemed over-telegraphed. Toby Stephens in particular seemed to improve on closer acquaintance - his opening scene, dressed in a flouncy white night-shirt wrenched apart to expose his ripped torso, was perhaps a little too obvious an attempt to stoke up female fan-fervour, but was mildly alluring all the same. (Although I did wonder if this was partly the effect of a late dinner accompanied by a few glasses of good wine). Plus, the 'Blanche Ingram' jealousy/falling in love section of the Jane Eyre story is probably my favourite ... even so, the sexual dynamism between Jane and Rochester was definitely stepped up a notch here.

For certain, this series seems particularly keen to highlight this aspect of the narrative, above all else. The true primary driver of this narrative seems to be sexuality - between Jane and Rochester, in flashback with Rochester's passion for Adele's mother, and we can be sure, as hinted by the red scarf which sometimes flaps from the window of Bertha's rooms in the North Tower, between Rochester and Bertha.

To achieve this, the adaptation seems to have eschewed other key tenets of the story and taken on a more prosaic and earthy quality where arguably the Gothic elements have been diminished. I would love to see a more 'mystical' Jane Eyre. Certainly there is a magical quality to the heroine which has been largely ignored by most adapters, although Charlotte Gainsbourgh in 1996 almost seemed to capture this aspect of her characterisation. But not quite. This new Jane is all too real, very much an every(wo)man in the modern mould.

I genuinely feel Jane Eyre should be filmed at times more as a disturbing dream-sequence and be infused with magic melancholy. A good filmmaker could easily achieve this and still retain a strong sense of the basically harsh socio-economic realities which poor Jane has to combat and survive.

Having said that, there was one wonderful scene in last night's episode where the direction suddenly stepped up a gear as Jane watches the arrival of the Ingram party to the gallery at Thornfield, and in slow-motion we watch the richly-dressed, be-crinolined ladies seemingly wafting in on clouds of silk. This series needs more of these moments. Too much of this production has a feel of direction by numbers tinged with a mildly racey, postmodern aesthetic.

For example, it was all too obvious that the closing shot of last night's episode would be Bertha's POV, as seen through the imprisoning latticed window of the North Tower, watching Jane leave and Rochester and Blanche speed away on horseback. Rochester is notably wearing a 'red' hunting jacket, red being rather overtly symbolic in this production of danger and sexuality.

Even so, there were some fine moments to be savoured in this episode. This included the deftly sweet and intelligent characterisation of Mr Eshton, and the silly 'Twins' provided some amusement. Mrs Fairfax was a minor improvement on last week's voluble cheeriness and the manic scenes of preparation for the Ingram party were well-done.

The best stuff however was reserved for Pam Ferris - a genuinely forbidding and threatening representation of Grace Poole here, although her contentious exchange with Jane after Rochester is almost burnt in his bed, was slightly ruined by an over-emoting Ruth Wilson. Sure she's suspicious and even frightened of Grace Poole, but her manner here was over-confrontational and seemingly close to tears, but never convincing.

Aside from this, Ruth Wilson is putting in a competent performance, although I am not as gushing about her acting abilities as many other reviewers appear to be thus far.

Narratologically this episode focused largely on Rochester and Jane's falling subtly but unfailingly in love with each other. Jane's excited response to his close attentions after she has saved him from a fiery death were played out by Ruth Wilson with a rapt, glowing face - more expressive of a young girl's first passionate crush. This is further denoted by her renewed attention to her dress and appearance as she chooses to wear an 'ornamental' ever-so slightly raffish red neckerchief (note the usage of 'red' as signifying sexuality, yet again).

Rochester's interest in Jane is expressed differently - even at times, a little uncertainly. He is drawn to her, but we aren't entirely sure why. But he gradually draws humour, even lightly flirtatious banter, into their discourse. Does he merely see her as a conquest? A desire to overcome the buttoned-up virgin in grey? Or does he (as we are clearly meant to believe) somehow perceive Jane's inner fire and passion? His personal challenge then is to draw that out ... preferably in conjunction with an avowal of her love for him of course. Yet he also takes a keen and real and genuinely compassionate interest in her personal narrative (or rather her seeming lack of it). This is highlighted by one particular close-up on Rochester, listening intently to Jane expressing her views on childhood and love to an appreciative Mr Eshton and a snarling Lady Ingram. The pitying look of clear understanding on his face shows that he is coming to realise the extent of cruelty and abuse Jane has suffered in her young life, and how this has shaped her personality. It's just a shame we saw so little of this for ourselves during the first episode when her childhood was sped through at a dizzying rate of knots. However, we were served some small recompense here with a timely flashback to a mildly terrifying Tara Fitzgerald as Aunt Reed sneering cruelly at a young Jane.

Interestingly the gypsy fortune-teller who frightens Blanche Ingram and tries to wheedle out Jane's secrets in this production is not Rochester in disguise, but a local woman Rochester has paid to impersonate a gypsy instead. Clearly it was felt a Rochester 'in drag' would fail to convince a savvy audience - thus a small element of suspense is retained.

An additional new scene featuring the Ingram party playing with a Ouija board offered little of interest, as Rochester fixes the game to reveal to Blanche that he considers her 'heartless' - to what effect is uncertain. After all, we are left wondering, why is he blatantly flirting with a woman he clearly disdains? Perhaps the adaptation process reveals this as a slightly gaping plot-hole, or at least renders it less plausible than the source text would have us believe, as we soon learn Rochester has been keen to parade his flirtation with Blanche in order to make Jane jealous. This is surely an interesting point of debate. Added to which, the whole episode reflects rather badly on Rochester's core character - but then, arguably, we have here one of the most misogynistic, controlling and pompous romantic heroes in fiction, saved in part by his obvious intellect, perception and moral confusion, plus his powerful sense of regret and grief for a rashly mis-spent youth with dire, long-term consequences. Caring for Adele is one form of recompense for these failings while Jane becomes his solace, his intellectual equal, his personal redemption ... after all, this is a tale where the 'hero' believes, in a rather patronising manner maybe, that he can develop and mature his innocent heroine, but in fact Rochester too must embark on his own important emotional journey of self-discovery, with almost fatal consequences. There is no denying that Bronte's Rochester has 'depth' - even if you can't actually bring yourself to like him.

We are still to see if Toby Stephens will truly make his mark in this regard. He is still very much in the mould of the traditional, patriarchal romantic hero reinforced by strongly highlighting his empathetic perspicacity with regard to Jane and her sad past. In this sense Stephen's Rochester is of course enacting a well-loved though rather unimaginative and conservative archetype splendidly well, but we also have brief glimpses of a darkly-lit inner life, which hopefully augur well for the rest of the series.

A quick point about Blanche Ingram, played by Christina Cole - did anyone else think she closely resembled Trevyn McDowell who was Rosamund in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch? It was really bugging me for most of last night's show!

On a final note, and returning to my call for a more mystical adaptation, infused with the magic spirit of the novel but not wholly dependent, was anyone else disappointed with the musical scoring of this production? I was disappointed (but not surprised I suppose) that the Goldfrapp 'You Never Know' theme used in the Jane Eyre advertising on BBC 1, or indeed music in a similar vein, has never surfaced during the actual series. I feel a visually dynamic, dreamy even slightly surreal production of this fine novel, while still in 'period' and chiefly realist in scope and style, is long over-due - one which mixes moods and styles, and even music ... the electro-pop Goldfrapp theme is truer and more heartfelt as an essence, a sense of Jane Eyre than the anaemic, classic costume-drama scoring we have instead.

It really is time for a fresh and daring approach to Jane Eyre - the novel deserves it. What we have here is a stolid but workable and entertaining adaptation - so far - with some nicely-pitched acting performances. But this is also a missed opportunity to be bold and different.

See reviews for Jane Eyre, Episodes 1 and 3 and 4. Also Wide Sargasso Sea.

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