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Jane Eyre (Northern Ballet at Richmond Theatre)

I have been following Northern Ballet since the 1980s, especially through the years in which Christopher Gable, and then David Nixon, have been at the helm, and through the change from Northern Ballet Theatre rebranded as Northern Ballet.  It still has the dramatic focus very much at its heart, but with the ballet on an equal level, too.

Back in 2002 I saw NBT’s production of Wuthering Heights, with Charlotte Talbot as Cathy and the late Jonathan Olliver as Heathcliff.  It had all the power and the passion of the source Brontë novel.  Will Charlotte’s classic novel fare as well as her sister Emily’s?

The ballet of Jane Eyre (sumptuously scored by Philip Feeney) starts with Jane being discovered on the moors by the Rev St John Rivers, and taken to recover with his sisters.  She starts to recount her story, and we go back to the graveside where the young Jane passes to the care of her cruel Aunt Reed and her bullying cousins, their dancing portraying her anger and their indifference.

Passing through Lowood Institution and on to Thornfield, the adult Jane (Dreda Blow) is a fiery, passionate creature and her dancing focuses on both the drama and the technical needs of the story.  Rochester (Javier Torres) was initially not working for me, but his scenes with Jane from the fire scene onwards were well judged, tender, and vibrantly portrayed, making me think of both Macmillan’s choreography of Romeo and Juliet and the original NBT production of Dracula, which also used Feeney’s music.

Bertha Mason’s wild harpy with fire red hair, the twittery and fussy Mrs Fairfax, and the graceful Adele, were all highlights in a production which may have stumped those unfamiliar with the novel (and this version excised Mason, instead having Grace Poole appearing injured at the ball), while the additional of a male chorus of ‘D men’ didn’t quite work – Jane is a character who seeks and thrives in solitude, and she is never alone on stage – but this production is an emotional powerhouse with some excellent staging choices (especially around the scenes of fire) and some wonderful pieces of choreography from Cathy Marston.


Jane Eyre (National Theatre)

First presented in two parts in Bristol, this version now playing at the National Theatre has been reduced to a more manageable three and a quarter hours (including interval) in which to tell the story of Jane Eyre from birth to happy ending.  Topping and tailing the main story with the words ‘It’s a girl!’ makes this a strictly feminist reading of the novel on the surface, although the focus remains on the love story between the plain and insignificant Jane and her employer, the troubled Mr Rochester.

jane eyre

Playing Jane from childhood onwards, Madeleine Worrall is absolutely excellent, a wild haired dervish of a troubled girl whether crying out ‘unjust’ to her life, running on the spot to represent the journeys between Mrs Reed’s home and Lowood Institution, Lowood and Thornfield Hall, and climbing ladders within the set of wood and metal to show passages of place and time.  Rochester (Felix Hayes) does not overdo the bluster or sharpness of his role, instead finding a connection with his new governess and an opportunity to escape his desperate situation.

Craig Edwards has three roles – Mr Brocklehurst, Rochester’s dog Pilot, and Mason (brother to the shadowy Bertha Mason, who appears now and then in the person of Melanie Marshall’s singer who interjects ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘Crazy’ – the Gnarls Barkley one, not the Patsy Cline one – into proceedings), and he works hard, especially in the comic role of the faithful pet.

Other performers who deserve to be mentioned are Laura Elphinstone (Helen Burns, Adele, and a particularly sanctimonious St John Rivers), and Maggie Tierney (Mrs Reed and Mrs Fairfax), but the whole ensemble come together in a beautifully choreographed set of scenes, perfectly timed and probably testament to a long period of gestation and rehearsal.

Set pieces, too, work well in places – the cavernous grave which swallows Jane’s parents, her Uncle Reed, and Helen in quick succession as they leave her life, her Aunt Reed’s promise to bring up her baby niece as one of the family and then shaking the baby bundle with distain into the plain dress in which the young Jane is garbed, little more than a servant.

I do feel, however, that Sally Cookson’s production assumes a prior knowledge of the story that many audiences might not have, and that there are some bad decisions, including the aforementioned Bertha, who is too smooth and measured to represent a mad woman who burns, stabs and bites.  The one thing that made me cringe was Rochester’s descent from his horse in a flurry of f- words, which was unnecessary: this man is no gentleman and not worthy of Jane.  The book’s Rochester may have a certain brusqueness of tone but he would be unlikely to swear in the company of a woman; even that other Gothic hero, Heathcliff, never did that.

A Jane which perhaps fails to fully gel, could do with being cropped by around half an hour, but which nevertheless remains true to its source and its heroine, and ends up being effective and moving despite itself.


Jane Eyre (Studio One, 1949) ***1/2

Charlton Heston made a number of TV productions before he attained movie stardom, including several entries in the Westinghouse Studio One series. This time, he’s Edward Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre’, and although a little too young for the role, he puts the part across with the right mix of sardonic charm and arrogance. Jane herself, played by an actress I hadn’t seen before, was also very good, and the production itself has some chills and some surprises – a glimpse of the mad wife from a window, for example.

This production is fairly easy to find and view online and is worth the effort. I’ve seen and liked many Jane Eyre versions, and this one is a welcome addition to those titles.


Jane Eyre (1997) ***1/2

This version has several things to, on the surface, recommend it – Samantha Morton, fresh from Band of Gold and before her Hollywood successes, plays Jane Eyre with sincerity and real feeling. We can understand her motivation and empathise with her position.

Even though short, this adaptation manages to stay fairly close to the book, although, like most versions, takes liberty with the dialogue and settings. Gemma Jones is a good Mrs Fairfax, and Timea Berthome is a sweet little Adele.

But … Ciaran Hinds as Rochester! No, no, no. Aside from the Santana moustache, his acting is overplayed and just wrong for the part, proving laughable in places. The kissing scenes are too ridiculous for words and only highlight the lack of chemistry between him and Morton, far from suggesting the latent passion we should see between hero and heroine in this complicated tale.

His casting is a major misfire for me, and damages the fabric of an otherwise solid TV version. Not unwatchable, but disappointing.


Jane Eyre (1996) ***

The first time I saw this Zeffirelli version of the famous Bronte classic, I wasn’t particularly impressed with either Charlotte Gainsbourg’s feisty interpretation of Jane, or with William Hurt’s over-sensitive version of Rochester.

This Jane is the one with dark and brooding tendencies (played as a child by Anna Paquin, this side of her comes across well); while Rochester is damaged by his past but not quite right in the characterisation, less a gothic hero than a damp squib.

A second viewing put both in a more favourable light, but the problem is that ‘Jane Eyre’ has many other, much better, adaptations out there and this version adds very little. In the cast we have Billie Whitelaw as a creepy Grace Poole, the reliable Joan Plowright as Mrs Fairfax, Samuel West as the colourless St John Rivers, and Maria ‘Last Tango’ Schneider as the imprisoned lunatic, Bertha.

One or two scenes stay in the memory – Josephine Serre as the very French Adele; Jane’s sketching; the wedding sequences; Jane and Rochester’s first meeting (but this scene has been done much better before) – but as a whole it is pretty throwaway and forgettable.


Jane Eyre (1957) ***1/2

This miniseries is not available in translation, as far as I am aware, so this review is from watching the adaptation in Italian. Still, if you have any familiarity with the story, you shouldn’t have a problem following it.

Ilaria Occhini (her debut screen appearance at 22), is Jane, and Raf Vallone (who made appearances in English language films later) is Rochester. This version starts with the meeting of the two when Rochester falls from his horse, and then flashes back to Jane’s childhood at the Reeds, including some kind of early love affair (a departure from the book, but never mind …).

With Gothic flashes, smoulders and locked doors, this version delivers, and even has a nice twist to the ending which while not really Bronte, wraps up this film quite well. The acting is fine, and while not entirely faithful to the novel, it isn’t so much of a departure that it becomes a travesty.


Jane Eyre (2011) ****

A radical shake-up of the plot shows Jane’s flight from Thornfield before anything else, before returning to her childhood story.

Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, previously known for the lead in Alice in Wonderland, is a very different Jane to those we have seen before. She is so quiet and delicate the wind could blow her away. My only gripe would be that her accent wanders and can’t quite decide where to stick.

German-Irish actor Michael Fassbinder is a traditional looking Mr Rochester, but his first interview with Jane is disappointingly truncated.

Having said this, the 2011 version is excellent and the changing around of plot points to make the adaptation more cinematic gives this version some bite. I know that Fassbender has made his name since this as an actor who generally plays complex low-lifes or undesirables, but in this he is everything a Rochester should be.

Good support, too, from Jamie Bell (little Billy Elliot, as St John Rivers!), Sally Hawkins (as nasty Aunt Reed), and Freya Parks (as tragic Helen Burns).


Jane Eyre (1943) ****

Orson Welles, for me, is the definitive Rochester, handsome, egotistical, unpredictable. He’s also more subtle and touching than other actors who have played the role.

A real weepie, despite the weak central performance of Joan Fontaine as Jane. Watch out for a very young Liz Taylor as Helen Burns.

One of my all-time favourite period dramas, even if all the mists and stuff are more of Emily Bronte’s country than sister Charlotte’s!


Jane Eyre (1971) ****

This version suffers from its continued unavailability in a decent print or DVD release. A great shame, as the music (by John Williams) is lovely, there are beautiful landscapes and scenery, and George C Scott is wonderful as Rochester. His heartbreak as he doesn’t understand how Jane can leave him after the aborted wedding is very powerful.

Susannah York is a beautiful and passionate Jane, although she doesn’t have the youth the part requires. Also in the cast, and doing well, are Ian Bannen (Rivers), Jack Hawkins (Brocklehurst, dubbed but still memorable), Jean Marsh (an affecting cameo as Bertha, trapped in her own little world).

This may be viewed as a second-string film for Scott, but it did get theatrical release in the UK and, despite the poor quality prints we see now, did have a decent budget. I like it a lot.


Jane Eyre (2006) ****1/2

Charlotte Bronte’s source novel has inspired many different adaptations through the years – whether you remember the restraint of Ciaran Hinds (in the last TV production before this one), or the pseudo-Heathcliff Gothic of Orson Welles in the 1940s, the character of Mr Rochester always seems to take centre stage over his young governess, the eponymous Jane.

Spirited and memorable Janes have been thin on the ground – here, Ruth Wilson is not quite plain enough but succeeds in getting to the heart of the character and making you remember her long after the credits of the closing episode have run.

This Jane has feelings enough to react to what happens to her and to get what she wants – Toby Stephens plays Rochester as suitably irritated and tortured but yet does not come across as caricature.


Jane Eyre (1983) *****

This 1983 adaptation is one of the most faithful to the book and benefits from an excellent Rochester (a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton), opposite the picture perfect Zelah Clarke as Jane. Oddly, this break did not enhance her career and she is now retired from acting.

Although the book veers more towards piety and religion than passion and Gothic romance, film versions have always taken the central ‘thread’ between Rochester and Jane as the main driving plot.

If you love the book, or period drama, or Gothic heroes, or the quiet heroine who is ‘calm at the mouth of hell’, then this is the version for you.


Jane Eyre (1934) ***1/2

This creaky Monogram cheapo, running at just over an hour, manages to change the Bronte novel to such a degree that after the first ten minutes I had to stop laughing, forget about the book, and enjoy the film for what it is – essentially a film using characters from ‘Jane Eyre’.

Jane Eyre is a wilful child who is happy to go to Lowood and eventually is fired after calling her employer a ‘wicked old crocodile’. So the whole point of abuse of Lowood is lost with this flippant treatment and the complete removal of Helen Burns. Oh, and Jane swans off with ‘the inheritance she has from her uncle’. Eh? On her way to Thornfield with a comedy cart driver (added character, husband of Grace Poole) she steps down and gets in the way of Mr Rochester’s horse. OK, this is from the book, but her response to his questioning what she does at Thornfield is not! Once at the house, Adele is the English niece of ‘Uncle Edward’, so removing the point of illegitimacy and neglect of the child, who is now doted on.

Even the first scene of conversation between Jane and Rochester is off-kilter, especially when she takes to the piano and sings to him! Blanche Ingram is a matronly woman who couldn’t possibly compare with Jane’s ringlets; Adele does imitations of party guests for Blanche’s dad; and there is no Mason, no gypsy scene, no tension. There is the burning bed scene but that falls flat and has none of the drive we expect to see from that situation.

Rochester is waiting for an annulment to come through, so no obstacle to marrying Jane and no potential bigamy here. In fact Adele suggests he marries Jane and so he rushes to propose! The ‘mad’ wife seem strangely lucid, although Jane still leaves when she sees her and almost immediately it seems the house burns down.

John Rivers is included briefly as Jane goes to work for his mission and even agrees to marry him before meeting Mr Poole again and discovering about the Thornfield fire. Now her affections seem to change again and she goes back for the reconciliation with the now blind Rochester.

As Jane, Virginia Bruce is far too pretty but she was a good actress and, putting aside the book and other interpretations, is watchable and engaging. Colin Clive, best known for Frankenstein, plays Rochester with some skill but does not have enough to work with.

This version is too merry, too happy, without the complications and the discontent you would expect to see from a man disappointed with his lot and damaged from an inappropriate marriage to a madwoman.

I was glad to see it and have rated it fairly high because as a film on its own, it is quite good. As an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s complex novel it is a disgrace.


Jane Eyre, 1956 – ★★★★

This was a superb TV adaptation which was far better than expected – I had seen a few clips before.

Stanley Baker shows us a Rochester who lives in torment but who also has some humour as you see the love between him and Jane (Daphne Slater, who plays her from childhood, and is excellent) develop.

Studio bound except for one episode’s film sequences, this overcomes the technical and budgetary limitations of 1950s tv to provide a satisfying version which raises some smiles and gives a touching ending.

It starts with the young Jane screaming with fear in the locked room at her Aunt Reed’s, where her uncle had died and every noise and shadow causes her to jump.  We then see her life at Lowood with only the kind Miss Temple and the consumptive Helen Burns as friends – and later, when Helen has died and Jane has grown she answers Mrs Fairfax’s advertisement for a governess.

The story has been covered in many adaptations since, but I have only seen a handful of earlier ones, and none of them have gone into this depth (three hours and twenty minutes of episodes).  We have the gypsy scene, the fall from the horse (which can be found on the internet, one of the two clips I had seen before), the first interview (although this time Rochester does not send for Jane, she walks in on Adele unannounced and there he is), the attempt to burn Rochester in his bed – but missing the ‘friends and shake hands’ bit, the abruptly ended wedding, and so on.

There is a lot to admire here, notably the interplay between the leads and the fact that despite the actors being only one month apart in age, they portray a twenty-year age gap accurately here.  I liked the fact that Mrs Fairfax obviously knows something is hidden on the second floor as she pulls away from Jane and does not wish her happiness, and I particularly liked the ending, which was handled well.  And the pious clergyman Rivers is truly awful, all full of Christian charity.

This version is in the BFI archives and is in fairly good condition for a 1950s TV broadcast, one of the earliest to survive from the UK.  It has lovely music and interesting opening and closing credits, starting with a silhouette of Jane and ending with one of Rochester, perhaps a nod to the ‘threads between us’ speech which is missing from this version, which alludes to the pair being one being joined together at the heart.


Jane Eyre on television

In this post, I will be considering seven adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s famous book.  I will also touch briefly on a version I have not yet seen in its entirety, but only in a small number of clips.  (For a look at versions made for the big screen, see my post Jane Eyre in the cinema).

The earliest version made for the US television series, Westinghouse Studio One, was transmitted live in 1949, and features the young Charlton Heston as Mr Rochester, with Mary Sinclair as Jane.  This pair would also appear together in the same year as Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, the book by Charlotte’s sister Emily.   Studio One dramatisations were extremely short and succinct, running at approximately fifty minutes including advertisements.  The time limitation obviously means a much truncated story, although there is still time for basic plot points including Rochester’s fall from his horse, the Mason visit, and the fire at Thornfield.

Another anthology series, Matinee Theatre, provided an adaptation in 1957 with Patrick McNee and Joan Elan in the leads, in a colour production.  Again, this version runs at just under an hour and so must be selective in its storyline.  The advantage of having such a tight timeframe in which to turn around a complex book is that an adaptor must decide which characters/plots to leave out.  McNee appeared in quite a few literary adaptations in the 1950s but he doesn’t have the right personality for this role.

1957 also saw the first full-length television adaptation, made in Italy with a recognised star, Raf Vallone, as Mr Rochester, and Ilaria Occhini as Jane.  The version currently available does not have English subtitles, but those familiar with the story will be able to follow it despite the language barrier.  The settings and atmosphere feel very gothic, and the running time, across several hours, gives ample time for the whole of Bronte’s book to be at least attempted.

The previous year, the first British adaptation of the book was filmed, and although it survives in its entirety, it is not currently possible to view the whole series.  However, on viewing a couple of clips (Rochester and Jane’s first meeting, and the aftermath of the wedding) it seems that in Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater this production provides a leading man and lady who do justice to their characters, although Baker is a bit on the gruff side.

It was not until 1973 that another four-hour version appeared, in colour, this time with the Irish actress Sorcha Cusack as Jane and Michael Jayston as Mr Rochester.  This is one of my favourite adaptations, with Jayston being particularly sardonic and charming in his role, while Cusack is much his match as a rational girl whose personality develops as she falls into love.  This version of the book feels quite wide in scope and landscape, and the St John Rivers story is well-covered with Geoffrey Whitehead a sanctimonious polar opposite to Jayston’s man of hidden passions.

Ten years later, in 1983, the quiet and unassuming Zelah Clarke was cast as Jane opposite Timothy Dalton, who had previously played Heathcliff in a cinema adaptation of Wuthering Heights.  Again running at over four hours, this version is perhaps the closest to the book, and both principal actors are excellent, especially Clarke (who should have had a great career on the back of this, but instead fell into obscurity and is now retired from acting).  A particular highlight is Rochester’s gypsy trick with the Ingrams, which is great fun.

An adaptation at feature film length in 1997 suffers from a degree of miscasting as Mr Rochester, with Ciaran Hinds far too one-note as an angry and bitter man who resents his dark secret.  Samantha Morton, however, is mesmerising as Jane, delicate, naive, and trusting.  We see her shopping for her wedding trousseau in childish delight, and follow her emotional awakening as a woman with some empathy.

Finally, in 2006 we saw another four-hour version which presented another quiet Jane (Ruth Wilson), but this time one with hidden depths.  Toby Stephens was perhaps not an obvious choice for Mr Rochester, but with his Byronic brooding looks he fits the part of a damaged romantic hero, which is how the character is presented during this dramatisation.  Wilson is absolutely stunning as a girl who goes from plain to beautiful before our eyes.  She rightly went on to more high-profile roles in television (including Luther) and cinema (most recently in The Lone Ranger).


Jane Eyre in the cinema

I would like to look at five adaptations of the Charlotte Bronte novel which were intended for cinema release.  (For a look at some television versions, go to my page Jane Eyre on television.)

The first is Hollywood’s first, and rather ridiculous, attempt, to dramatise the book, in 1934.  In choosing to amend or ditch much of the story it might present a short piece of melodrama (70 minutes at most) but it is most definitely not the Jane Eyre we know (to start with, Jane comes into her money much more early on; while Rochester’s wife appears quite lucid and there is even talk of a divorce before he is free to mary Jane).  Virginia Bruce is far too pretty in a classic peaches and cream way to convince as the ‘plain’ governess; while Colin Clive does his best in a role to which he is completely unsuited.

The first genuine adaptation appeared in 1943, and benefits from the casting as Mr Rochester of Orson Welles, then the toast of Tinseltown following his acting and directing debut in Citizen Kane.  Here he does not take on directing duties, but this swirling gothic romance is much fairer to Bronte’s novel than the version of a decade earlier.  There are still missteps – St John Rivers is now the doctor at Jane’s school, for example, while Joan Fontaine doesn’t quite have the necessary depth for Jane – but this is at least an entertaining and well-done piece of cinema.  I like the scene in which Welles and Fontaine meet in the hallway during the Ingrams’ party, and his touching enquiry about how Jane is feeling.

In Britain, 1970’s adaptation appeared as part of British Lion’s trio of classic dramatisations for cinema (the others were David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights).  It now exists in very poor condition, which is a shame as its principals are very good indeed.  As Jane, Susannah York was cast to present a feisty and mature match for the American actor George C Scott, who would occasionally appear in literary adapations made in Britain over the next few years (he was Fagin in Oliver Twist, and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol).  Here he has both the frustration and the vulnerability required for the complex role of Mr Rochester, and a particular strength of this version is the scene, post-wedding, where Jane decides to leave Thornfield.

The 1996 American version has some casting against type, with Charlotte Gainsbourg essaying a dark-haired and sullen Jane to William Hurt’s blond and reserved Mr Rochester.  It is almost as if the roles are reversed.  This version focuses closely on Jane’s artistic endeavours, and presents her as something of a free spirit.  It doesn’t quite gel with the source material, but works as a film.

Finally, in 2011 a radical shake-up of the plot showed Jane’s flight from Thornfield before anything else, before returning to her childhood story.   Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, previously known for the lead in Alice in Wonderland, is a very different Jane to those we have seen before.  She is so quiet and delicate the wind could blow her away.  German-Irish actor Michael Fassbinder is a traditional looking Mr Rochester, but his first interview with Jane is disappointingly truncated.


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