Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
What makes a classic? It's a difficult question to answer, since there are many varieties of classics. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are classics. So are the works of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. But one novel stands out above the others. One novel has been translated into many different languages, and filmed numerous times. This is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Why is it so beloved? Perhaps because it's a mystery. It's a romance. It's one of the first recorded gothic thrillers. The heroine is sweet, innocent, and steadfast, and the hero holds a dark secret. What's not to like?
Left an orphan at a young age, Jane Eyre was sent to live with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Reed. Her uncle's untimely death left her a burden on the family, who henceforth chose to treat her terribly. Mrs. Reed is convinced due to the lies of her only son that Jane is a deceitful little girl. Her punishment for misbehavior is time spent locked in "the Red Room," an upper chamber of the house believed to be haunted by ghosts. After a number of tiffs with her cousins, Jane's aunt is at the end of her rope. Calling in Mr. Brocklehurst, the overly religious and pious director of a local charity school for girls, she has Jane committed to the institution with the warning to be "very harsh upon her." Faced with often strict teachers and cool schoolyard companions, Jane's only friends are the headmistress, Miss Temple, and an older girl by the name of Helen Burns. But after an epidemic carries Helen into the arms of heaven, Jane is left alone to fend for herself. After Miss Temple's marriage some eight years later, Jane decides it is time to leave the school (where she is now a teacher) and journey into the world. Posting an advertisement in the local paper, she is drawn to the mysterious grand old house Thornfield in the English countryside, to care for a French girl, Adele. The house is kept by a housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, some friendly servants, and a mysteriously sinister seamstress named Grace Poole.
It is several months before Jane meets her employer, the gruff Edward Rochester, who accuses her of being some fairy nymph and having bewitched his horse upon the moor. The pair are curiously drawn together through a series of subtle flirtations, fruitless arguments, and shared confidences. But as Jane grows more attached to her benefactor, things become increasingly dangerous in the house. Grace Poole has created several frightening events, and still Edward refuses to dismiss her. What hold can the old woman possibly have over him? Surely there is more to Thornfield than meets the eye. I've seen a number of adaptations from this excellent book, and this is one of the best. You can easily tell it follows closely to the book in many respects due to its pacing... scenes and dialogue thrown into other, shorter versions are given enough time in this setting to unfold as true life might. We don't go from one horrible circumstance or shocking discovery to another without some down time in-between.
This is also one of the few versions where the viewer actually comes to understand why Jane could fall in love with Edward, a man some twenty years older and considerably more gruff and wild than her mellow eighteen years. Timothy Dalton is brilliant in the role of the leading man... he can be exasperating one moment, and utterly likable the next. Gruff, cross, even contemptible, but also romantic and fascinating. Zelah Clarke is ideal as Jane, for while the role calls for a very plain girl, she exhibits her own subtle beauty. It's not as flagrant as Blanche Ingram's, but softly underplays her passionate but often subdued portrayal of Jane. This version also includes some aspects entirely overlooked in Hollywood and even A&E's adaptations. One of them is the parlor scene with the "gypsy woman," an elaborate hoax set up by none other than our delightful Rochester for purposes of his own. It also gives some life to Jane's cousin Rivers in the second half, and makes us understand just why she didn't accept his proposal. (In other versions, Rivers is subdued but not overly irritating and selfish as Bronte wrote him.)
True, there are flaws, but they are slim and generally the fault of the filmmakers and the BBC's limited artistry during the 1980's. The second half seems to be slightly anti-climactic; I wasn't as fond of it as the first tape. Some of the transitions could have been done with more interesting flair, and often as is the case with BBC period dramas, the sound wavers slightly... footsteps on gravel are loud, while voices are softer and more difficult to understand. There really isn't anything horrible to look out for; I was pleasantly surprised. The most of the violence comes in the form of a gruesome wound on a man's chest and arms, a child being slapped, and a figure being attacked from behind. There are allusions in dialogue to past 'indiscretions' and immoral behavior. A man tries to damper down 'society ideals' by justifying bigamy. Much like the book, there is a skewed view of members of the clergy. Jane professes a faith in God, and often directs Edward to seek His forgiveness, but those around her represent the very worst of the church during this point in time. Brocklehurst, the reverend who controls the girl's school, is nothing more than a pious, arrogant, self-seeking exhibitionist. Later, a young reverend who proposes to Jane tells her egotistically that if she refuses him, she'll be refusing God as well. Overall, it's my favorite adaptation of the story. It does take longer than most, but the poetic dialogue gives way to some real character development, and the story carries a unique flair all its own.