Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (under the pen name of “Currer Belle” to discombobulate her biological determinism) is neither a romantic novel about a lonely young woman falling for her rich master nor a proto-feminist literature subtly championing women’s economic independence and choice to select their lovers on their own. It is a story of a resilient and noble spirit armed with education, clothed in a canopy of humanity, and adorned with reflective beauty of the mind that transforms physical plainness into comeliness. That’s what makes our heroine Jane Eyre timelessly unforgettable, undeniably attractive; perchance, that’s why this novel has been made into a series of film versions for television and cinema resurrecting the ambiance of the period and bringing the hauntingly impassioned characters into life. Of all the dramatized adaptations of Jane Eyre, this 1983 BBC mini-series version merits itself in the movie firmament as the authoritative translation of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel, wonderfully delivered by a cracking screenplay, a brilliant cast of performers, and a correct setting of the story, resembling none other than themselves altogether in this riveting panoply of Bronte’s dazzling creation.
Dramatized by Alexander Baron, this TV series is composed of eleven episodes that faithfully capture the epochal moments of the passionate heroine Jane Eyre from the moments she was cruelly castigated by her callous aunt and her equally sordid cousins to her eight years of boarding school experience, to the fateful encounter with the brooding but vulnerable Mr. Rochester, and to the significant events packed full of surprises and serendipity worth every reward to the lonely Jane. The gem of this BBC miniseries is that each of the episodes is treated as a small story – that is, a story embedded in a whole story as if it were a short story itself – so you can skip the early years of Jane and jump into her employment as governess for Adele, the only daughter of Mr. Rochester at Thornfield without feeling adrift from the previous story that will defenestrate you to the middle of nowhere in the whole story. Of course, for those of us who have read and re-read the novel since the time immemorial, it’s a foregone conclusion, but even if you haven’t, take heart and play it fast forward to meet the grown Jane (although she’s only nineteen years old.) in her tantalizing, suspenseful moments with Mr. Rochester and even St. John Rivers.
At the heart of the drama lies the commendable performance of the characters: Jane Eyre, played by Zelah Clarke, Edward Rochester aka “Mr. Rochester,” by Timothy Dalton, and St. John Rivers, by Andrew Bicknell invest the drama with the beautifully nuanced dialogues and gestures, which are never outlandishly displayed, vying for individual attention, but harmoniously concerted that impart the enthusiasm and the verisimilitude to the story. The appearances, gestures, and diction of these three characters are exactly what I have always imagined them to be in my mind’s eye. Clarke’s rendition of Jane Eyre is the finesse itself that would make Charlotte Bronte happy with her performance as well as physiognomy. Jane is a passionate soul, but conservative, if not conventional. She is an intelligent woman who loves her gruff but deeply hurt and lonely Edward Rochester as her equal despite a sea of an age difference and his petulant past. Unlike other Jane Eyres played previously and posteriorly, Clarke’s Jane epitomizes the heroine of oddly beautiful enigma personified: the plain but pretty, expressive but demure, passionate but docile, sensitive but intense, patient but yearning… Which is befittingly summarized by St. John Rivers, wonderfully and unforgettably played by Andrew Bicknell: “She has an unusual face rather…The grace and harmony of beauty are wanting in her features. She is not at all handsome…” I have seen other film versions of Jane Eyre, but none other than this Clarke’s Jane Eyre has won my approval in terms of all things regarding the heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel.
That goes the same for Timothy Dalton’s irrepressible Edward Rochester and Andrew Bicknell’s stoical but misguided St. John Rivers. On a personal note, Bicknell seems to nail the role down as handsome and intelligent St. John Rivers, who prioritizes his religious duties as a parson over his human feelings and emotions for his beautiful and kind-hearted admirer Rosemund Oliver in the irrational belief that stoicism is the grist for the mill of vocation as a man of the cloth. He believes that it is his calling to be a missionary in India and that it behooves him to abnegate sensuous delights to which a man is naturally inclined with all his might. Watching Bicknell playing the character makes me wonder if the casting director or the screenwriter had the uncanny ability to conjure up the spirit of Charlotte Bronte and ask of her the fitting image of the character before the production of the drama. The tall, imposing manly figure of St. John Rivers with beautiful Grecian facial features and golden hair is just as the description created by Bronte in the novel as if she had seen Andrew Bicknell in the peculiar alchemy of literature that enabled her to look into the future and to view her character incarnate.
All in all, this 1983 BBC miniseries of Jane Eyre will arrest your full attention to every scene of the episodes without infelicity and pomposity that classical period dramas sometimes tend to produce on account of obsolete diction and rude gestures that look incongruously emphatic to our modern senses and sensibilities. This is a quaintly gorgeous drama without the ostentatious glamor of television drama exhibiting luminous Vanity Fair; it shows that just simple good scripts based on the loyal adaptation of the original novel and excellent performance of the fine cast that seems to be destined for the roles can translate the imaginative world of the author into the visual firmament of television drama this beautifully and impressively in a way that makes you feel the emotions of the characters by passing over to their inner worlds.