I find it very difficult to pick favourite books, movies, etc – but if I was forced to pick one novel which has meant the most to me in my life, then it would probably be Jane Eyre. So it’s surprising that, so far, I haven’t got round to writing about any of the many adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s great novel on this blog. Eventually I’d like to write about as many of them as I can – but, for starters, here are a few thoughts about the 1997 TV movie starring Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds, which has just been repeated on ITV3 in the UK. I saw it when it was first shown, but hadn’t remembered it all that well.
As with many single ITV dramatisations of long novels, the main problem with this version, directed by Robert Young and scripted by Richard Hawley, Kay Mellor and Peter Wright, is that it is so short – 108 minutes according to the imdb. Inevitably, large chunks have had to be left out, and there is very little of the young Jane’s time with the Reeds or at Lowood – just brief glimpses of key moments, like the Red Room and the death of Helen Burns. To be honest, I didn’t really mind skating over this part of the book quite quickly, as these sequences tend to be very demanding for child actresses, but a lot was lost. Anyway, when seeing any dramatisation of Jane Eyre, I always find myself waiting eagerly for her first sight of Thornfield and her first meeting with Rochester, which of course is the centre of the book.
The locations chosen for the filming are beautiful – with Naworth Castle, Brampton, Cumbria, used for the exterior shots of Thornfield, looking gloriously wild and remote. For me, Morton is perfect as Jane, just exactly how I’d always imagined the character, quiet but so expressive in her eyes and her body language. I love the way that sometimes, when Hinds as Rochester seems fierce and blustering on the surface, you see her half-smiling to herself, trying not to laugh – showing that she recognises how much of it is acting, and knows what he is feeling underneath.
I also love the fact that this production features especially heavy use of voiceover, letting Jane speak to the viewer direct, just as she speaks to the reader in the novel. The language is often more modern than in Brontë’s novel, but I didn’t find myself missing the original words as much as I sometimes expected to – and I loved Morton’s voice.
This version has a particularly big age gap between the actors – Morton was only 20, Hinds 44. Even bigger than the age gap in the book, where, at the time of their first meeting, Jane is 18 and Rochester “might be 35”. The disparity between these actors as a couple is quite striking, but I think there is a chemistry there all the same.
From the few reviews I’ve found on the net, most people seem to agree that Morton – also so good in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown – is excellent as Jane Eyre. However, Hinds seems to come in for more criticism, for instance in this review by Paul Mavis at DVD Talk. (You have to scroll down to get to the Jane Eyre part). He says “Hinds’ interpretation of Rochester… felt altogether too rushed and… out of control for lack of a better descriptive phrase. His Rochester seems far too “on the edge” in all his dealings, far too high-strung for the Rochester I always have in mind, coming off many times as hysterical (and making Jane seem far more practical and centered).”
I can see that, as Mavis says, this is a more highly-strung Rochester than some other interpretations of the character, but I’d say the character’s darkness, violence and despair are there in the novel – and it is interesting to see an actor bring these elements out so strongly. I’ve very recently reviewed the BBC Ivanhoe mini-series, made the same year, starring Hinds as tortured hero de Bois-Guilbert, and he brings something of the same quality to Rochester. This is a sardonic, bitter version of the hero, worlds away from the more recent gentler Sandy Welch version with Toby Stephens, which I loved, but still a compelling take on the character. The romance does feel rather abrupt because of lack of time, and there aren’t enough conversations between Jane and Rochester, but those they do have still work well, I think.
Although I wasn’t over-worried by this production rushing over Jane’s childhood, at other times the truncation of the plot does cause problems and make it all feel rather clumsy. With the various clues and hints about the madwoman in the attic all being shown so close together, it becomes rather too obvious exactly what is going on. I even started to wonder why Jane doesn’t realise that Grace Poole must be the nurse of a hidden patient. In the book there is so much else happening in between, and so many seductive conversations, that it’s more understandable she doesn’t pick up on the hints.
The production focuses heavily on the central couple, inevitably so because of its limited time. However, costume drama veteran Gemma Jones does make a strong impression as Mrs Fairfax, and you can feel how she is worried by what she sees happening around her but unsure what to do about it. Abigail Cruttenden of Sharpe fame has very little screen time as Blanche and gives a rather colourless version of the character – while it’s a case of blink and you’ll miss Timia Berthome as Adele.
The wedding scene is done well in this production, as is the key scene afterwards where Rochester introduces the shocked company to his wife, Bertha (Sophie Reissner) – and, once she has finished her violent attempts to attack him, cradles her in his arms for a moment, as if she were his child, or as if it is the two of them against the world. I noticed he says “May I introduce my wife?”, which I think I’ve also heard in other productions of Jane Eyre, though that exact line isn’t in the book. That wording reminds me a bit of Mr Dorrit saying “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Marshalsea”, in Dickens’ Little Dorrit. In both cases the secret they have been struggling so hard to keep is suddenly revealed for all to see, in a terrible parody of polite society.
There is then a powerful scene where Jane leaves Rochester – a more bitter parting than I’ve seen in other adaptations, going with Hinds’ more embittered take on Rochester’s character. I noticed that in this version Jane insists less on her religious reasons for leaving, and more on the fact that he has deceived her – at one point saying: “I could never trust you again.” However, the main emotions of the scene are still the same however the words are changed – that she still loves him but is forcing herself to leave, because she believes it is right.
The whole section where Jane runs away and meets up with the Rivers family is very heavily cut back, just as with the opening childhood sections, with only a brief glimpse of St John Rivers, played by a very young and beautiful Rupert Penry-Jones, a rare example of a St John who really is more conventionally good looking than the Rochester in the same production! This production doesn’t have time to mention St John’s sweetheart, Rosamond, or even to give him two sisters – he has to make do with one, Diana (played by Elizabeth Garvie, who starred in a great adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1980).
I was disappointed that the whole important Rivers section is dealt with in just a few minutes – since this part of the book brings out so much of Jane’s character. Taking away both Lowood and Jane’s time as a teacher really means there has been little sight of her apart from Rochester – as an independent person who can get on with everyday life as well as a romantic heroine.
However, the ending, where she returns to a ruined Thornfield and is reunited with the blind, wounded Rochester, is just as emotionally powerful as I’d hoped it would be. Hinds again plays an angrier, more damaged version of Rochester than in other productions – you really feel he can’t believe that Jane wants to be with him, and that he might even drive her away. “How can you love me like this?” he asks, in tears. But she persuades him that she can – and there’s a tender closing glimpse of the two of them after years of marriage, walking with their children in the Yorkshire countryside.
I feel I may have made this version sound better than it is as a whole, because I’ve tended to focus on the bits I liked. It isn’t the best adaptation of Jane Eyre – but I do think it’s worth seeing for Morton and Hinds, and that their best scenes together are truly powerful stuff.