One of my favorite classic books is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and there’s a British miniseries version I’ve been meaning to watch for ages. Readers-Imbibing-Peril seemed like the perfect time to finally get on that!
The miniseries is 11 half-hour episodes, so about five and a half hours. With all that time, it was the most accurate to the book I’ve seen yet (and this makes the fourth movie version I’ve seen). The story begins with Jane as a young orphan, disliked by her aunt and cousins, and eventually sent off to Lowood School, a harsh and strict learning institution. When she becomes an adult, Jane advertises as a governess, and finds work at mysterious Thornfield Hall—and finds herself drawn to Thornfield’s mysterious master, Mr. Rochester.
Jane Eyre is a somewhat odd book in that there are parts I love and parts that are…not exactly a slog, but not all that exciting either. And the two can be pretty easily distinguished by whether or not Jane is at Thornfield Hall. The nice thing about a long miniseries is that there’s more time for the good parts at Thornfield—but the downside is that there’s more time spent on the duller bits too! The miniseries takes a full two episodes to get Jane to Thornfield, and while they’re not bad, it does require some patience to get through them.
But it’s worth the wait—it all gets better when we get to the adult Jane. Zelah Clark plays Jane as an adult, and delivers a wonderfully nuanced portrayal. Jane is frequently frustrating in her silence (so often I just want her to say “what the hell, Mr. Rochester?”) Clark is lovely at taking a silent Jane but giving her so much expression that she doesn’t feel passive or non-responsive at all. She also portrays Jane’s wit and passion much more than I’ve seen in other versions. She is a complex character, with perfect, refined self-control, but intelligence and spirit behind her lady-like mildness.
And then the series gets so much better too when Timothy Dalton arrives as Mr. Rochester. He’s an equally frustrating character in his erratic mood swings—but Dalton gives a nuanced and complex performance too. He makes me see Rochester’s passion and emotional vulnerability, and makes it clear that his wilder moments are inspired by a desperate desire to provoke Jane into a confession of love. I frequently want to shake him and say “use your words, man!” (and also—what the hell, Mr. Rochester?), but I find myself feeling sympathetic too.
So they’re each wonderful characters—and they have a delightful spark between them whenever they’re on screen together. There’s a moment when Mr. Rochester asks Jane to shake his hand…and it is unquestionably the most romantic handshake I have ever seen! (And the director clearly knew what was happening here, because it contrasts so beautifully with a handshake between Jane and late-in-the-story suitor St. John Rivers.) One very nice thing about a much longer retelling is that a good fifteen minutes was spent on the final happy ending—which most movies reduce to about three lines of dialogue, and perhaps one of voice-over narration.
I love how much this story and these characters end up overturning usual conventions—and the lord of the manor contemplating marrying a governess is the least of it. I love that when it all falls apart, she’s stoic and he’s in tears. I love that the heroine isn’t beautiful—she’s written as plain, but this is the first time I’ve seen her cast that way. (On the other hand, Timothy Dalton does not fit all the remarks on how unhandsome Mr. Rochester is…but we’ll sidle past that…) I love that so much of the romance is about the two of them becoming equals—and by the end, they really are—and that counts for even more in a story that was written in 1841!
Apart from Jane and Mr. Rochester….well, despite the length, I didn’t find that any of the supporting characters emerged very strongly here—with the slight exception of the aforementioned St. John, who contrived to be incredibly unlikable while being so very good. I was more disappointed by (how to say this without spoilers?) the most mysterious inhabitant of Thornfield Hall, who can be appallingly creepy in other versions and here is…quite believable and real-world and sad, but not very spooky at all.
This is not a miniseries I would recommend as a first encounter with Jane Eyre, as it’s rather long in spots. It’s wonderful in some ways, but I think it’s best watched if you already love the story. And then I do recommend it, because it has the best Jane and Mr. Rochester I’ve seen yet!
Buy it here: Jane Eyre (1983 BBC miniseries)