“JANE EYRE” (1973) Review

 

“JANE EYRE” (1973) Review

When I began this article, it occurred to me that I was about to embark upon the review of the sixth adaptation I have seen of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. I have now seen six adaptations of “Jane Eyre” and plan to watch at least one or two more. Meanwhile, I would like to discuss my views on the 1973 television adaptation.

For the umpteenth time, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a young English girl, who is forced to live with her unlikable aunt-by-marriage and equally unlikable cousins. After a clash with her Cousin John Reed, Jane Eyre is sent to Lowood Institution for girls. Jane spends eight years as a student and two as a teacher at Lowood, until she is able to acquire a position as governess at a Yorkshire estate called Thornfield Hall. Jane discovers that her charge is a young French girl named Adele Varens, who happens to be the ward of Jane’s employer and Thornfield’s owner, Edward Rochester. Before she knows it, Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr. Rochester. But the path toward romantic happiness proves to be littered with pitfalls.

After watching “JANE EYRE” . . . or least this version, I hit the Web to learn about the prevailing view toward the 1973 miniseries. I got the impression that a number of Brontë fans seemed to regard it as the best version of the 1847 novel. I can honestly say that I do not agree with this particular view. Mind you, the miniseries seemed to be a solid adaptation. Screenwriter Robin Chapman and director Joan Craft managed to translate Brontë’s tale to the screen without too many drastic changes. Yes, there are one or two changes that I found questionable. But I will get to them later. More importantly, due to the entire production being stretch out over the course of five episode, I thought it seemed well balanced.

I was surprised to see that “JANE EYRE” was set during the decade of the 1830s. It proved to be the second (or should I say first) adaptation to be set in that period. The 1983 television adaptation was also set during the 1830s. Did this bother me? No. After all, Brontë’s novel was actual set during the reign of King George III (1760-1820) and I have yet to stumble across an adaptation from this period. Both this production and the 1983 version do come close. But since“Jane Eyre” is not a historical fiction novel like . . . “Vanity Fair”, I see no reason why any movie or television production has to be set during the time period indicated in the story.

The movie also featured some solid performances. I was surprised to see Jean Harvey in the role of Jane’s Aunt Reed. The actress would go on to appear in the 1983 adaptation of the novel as Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. As for her portrayal of Aunt Reed, I thought Harvey did a solid job, even if I found her slightly theatrical at times. Geoffrey Whitehead gave an excellent performance as Jane’s later benefactor and cousin, St. John Rivers. However, I had the oddest feeling that Whitehead was slightly too old for the role, despite being only 33 to 34 years old at the time. Perhaps he just seemed slightly older. The 1973 miniseries would prove to be the first time Edward de Souza portrayed the mysterious Richard Mason. He would later go on to repeat the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 adaptation. Personally, I feel he was more suited for the role in this adaptation and his excellent performance conveyed this. I do not know exactly what to say about Brenda Kempner’s portrayal of Bertha Mason. To be honest, I found her performance to be something of a cliché of a mentally ill woman. For me, the best performance in the entire miniseries came from Stephanie Beachum, who portrayed Jane’s potential rival, the haughty and elegant Blanche Ingram. I do not think I have ever come across any actress who portrayed Blanche as both “haughty” and lively at the same time. Beachum did an excellent job at portraying Blanche as a likable, yet off-putting and arrogant woman.

Many fans of the novel do not seem particularly impressed by Sorcha Cusack’s portrayal of the title character. A good number of them have accused the actress of being unable to convey more than a handful of expressions. And they have accused her of being too old for the role at the ripe age of 24. Personally . . . I disagree with them. I do not regard Cusack’s performance as one of the best portrayals of Jane Eyre. But I thought she did a pretty damn good job, considering this was her debut as an actress. As for her “limited number of expressions”, I tend to regard this accusation as a bit exaggerated. Yes, I found her performance in the scenes featuring Jane’s early time at Thornfield a bit too monotone. But I feel that she really got into the role, as the production proceeded. On the other hand, many of these fans regard Michael Jayston’s portrayal of Edward Rochester as the best. Again, I disagree. I am not saying there was something wrong with his performance. I found it more than satisfying. But I found it difficult to spot anything unique about his portrayal, in compare to the other actors who had portrayed the role before and after him. There were a few moments when his performance strayed dangerously in hamminess. Also, I found his makeup a bit distracting, especially the . . . uh, “guyliner”.

The production values for “JANE EYRE” seemed solid. I felt a little disappointed that interior shots seemed to dominate the production, despite the exterior scenes of Renishaw Hall, which served as Thornfield. Some might argue that BBC dramas of the 1970s and 1980s were probably limited by budget. Perhaps so, but I have encountered other costumed productions of that period that have used more exterior shots. I had no problem with Roger Reece’s costume designs. But aside from the outstanding costumes for Stephanie Beacham, there were times when most of the costumes looked as if they came from a warehouse.

Earlier, I had commented on the minimal number of drastic changes to Brontë’s novel. I am willing to tolerate changes in the translation from novel to television/movie, if they were well done. Some of the changes did not bother me – namely Bessie’s visit to Jane at Lowood and the quarrel between Eliza and Georgiana Reed, during Jane’s visit at Gateshead Hall. But there were changes and omissions I noticed that did not exactly impress me. I was disappointed that the miniseries did not feature Jane’s revelation to Mrs. Fairfax about her engagement to Mr. Rochester. I was also disappointed that “JANE EYRE” did not feature Jane begging in a village before her meeting with the Rivers family. Actually, many other adaptations have failed to feature this sequence as well . . . much to my disappointment. And I was a little put off by one scene in which Mr. Rochester tried to prevent Jane from leaving Thornfield following the aborted wedding ceremony with over emotional kisses on the latter’s lips. Not face . . . but lips. I also did not care for the invented scenes that included a pair of doctors telling Reverend Brocklehurst that he was responsible for the typhus outbreak at Lowood. What was the point in adding this scene? And what was the point in adding a scene in which two society ladies discussed John Reed during a visit Thornfield?

Overall, “JANE EYRE” proved to be a solid adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, thanks to director Joan Craft and screenwriter Robin Chapman. Everything about this production struck me as “solid”, including the performances from a cast led by Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston. Only Stephanie Beachum’s portrayal of Blanche Ingram stood out for me. The production values struck me as a bit pedestrian. And I was not that thrilled by a few omissions and invented scenes by Chapman. But in the end, I liked the miniseries. I did not love it, but I liked it.

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

In my review of the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, I had stated that I was never a real fan of Victorian author, Charles Dickens. But I was willing to give the author another chance with a second viewing of the miniseries. However, I have yet to watch “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” for a second time. Instead, I turned my attention to another miniseries based on a Dickens novel – the 2008 production of “LITTLE DORRIT”

Based upon Dickens’s 1855-1857 serialized novel, “LITTLE DORRIT” is basically the story of a young late Georgian Englishwoman named Amy Dorrit, who spends her days earning money for the Dorrit family and looking after her proud father William, who is a long term inmate of Marshalsea Prison for Debt in London. When her employer’s son, Arthur Clennam returns from overseas to solve his family’s mysterious legacy, Amy and her family’s world is transformed for the better. And she discovers that her family’s lives and those of the Clennan family are interlinked. Considering that“LITTLE DORRIT” is a Dickens tale, one is bound to encounter a good deal of subplots. Please bear with me. I might not remember all of them. I do recall the following:

*Arthur Clennam is initially rejected by Pet Meagles, the daughter of a former business associate, due to her infatuation for artist Henry Gowan.

*John Chivery, the son of the Marshalsea Prison warden, harbors unrequited love for Amy Dorrit.

*A mysterious Englishwoman named Miss Wade, had been jilted by Henry Gowan in the past; and has now extended her hatred and resentment towards his wife, Pet Meagles and her family. She also notices their patronizing attitude toward their maid/ward, Harriet Beadle aka Tattycoram.

*Amy’s older sister, Fanny, becomes romantically involved with the step-son of wealthy businessman Mr. Merdle.

*Mr. Merdle becomes the force behind a fraudulent speculation scheme that impacts the London financial world.

*French criminal Rigaud/Blandois not only stumbles across the Clennam family secret regarding the Dorrit family, but is also recruited by Miss Wade to accompany Henry and Pet Gowran on their Italian honeymoon.

If there is one thing I can say about “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is a beautiful looking production. Four of the Emmy Awards that the miniseries won were in the technical categories. Production designer James Merifield, art director Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Deborah Wilson all shared the Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction in a Miniseries or Movie (they shared the award with the art direction team for HBO’s “GREY GARDENS”). And honestly? They deserved that award, thanks to their outstanding re-creation of both London and Italy in the 1820s. Owen McPolin, Alan Almond and Lukas Strebel, who won the Outstanding Cinematography Emmy; contributed to that re-creation of 1820s Europe with their sharp, colorful and beautiful photography. Costume designer Barbara Kidd and costume supervisor also won Emmy awards for the beautiful, gorgeous costumes created for this production. Not only did I find the costumes beautiful, but also a perfection re-creation of the mid-1820s fashions, as depicted in the images below:

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I could go on and on about the many subplots featured in “LITTLE DORRIT”. But honestly . . . I am too exhausted to do so. The only plots that interested me were the fortunes of both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam, Mrs. Clennam’s secret about her husband’s past, and Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes. I thought that Emmy winning screenwriter Andrew Davies and directors Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh (also an Emmy winner for her direction of Episode One), and Diarmuid Lawrence did a very good job in handling these plot lines. Or tried his best. His adaptation of the rise and fall of the Dorrit family’s fortunes was probably the best thing about “LITTLE DORRIT”. This was especially effective in plot lines that revolved around Amy Dorrit’s inability to adjust to her new status as the daughter of a wealthy man and especially, William Dorrit’s inabilities to move past his memories of the Marshalsea Prison. The subplot regarding the Dorrit family’s ties to the Merdle family also struck me as very effective. Fanny Dorrit’s relationship with Merdle’s stepson, Edmund Sparkler proved to be one of the funniest and more satisfying subplots in “LITTLE DORRIT”. And the subplot regarding Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes not only effected both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam’s fortunes in an effective way, it also strongly reminded me of the circumstances that led to the international community’s current economic situation.

However, there were subplots that did not strike me as that effective. I wish I could solely blame Charles Dickens. But I cannot. Davies and the three directors have to take some of the blame for not making some improvements to these subplots, when they had the chance to do so. The subplot regarding the Meagles family, their servant “Tattycoram” and Miss Wade struck me as a disaster. I found it poorly handled, especially the narrative regarding the fate of “Tattycoram”. In the end, nothing really came from Miss Wade’s resentment of Henry Cowan, the Meagles and especially her relationship with “Tattycoram”. I am also a little confused at the financial connection between the Clennam and Dorrit families. Could someone explain why an affair between Arthur’s father and some dancer would lead to a possible inheritance for Amy Dorrit? Many critics have tried to explain Dickens’ creation of the French villain Monsieur Rigaud. No explanation can erase my dislike of the character or its addition to the subplots involving the Clennam/Dorrit connection and the Gowans’ honeymoon. I realize that Rigaud was Charles Dickens’ creation. But it seemed a pity that Davies and the three directors did nothing to improve the use of Rigaud . . . or eliminate the character altogether. Aside from killing Jeremiah Flintwinch’s twin brother, intimidating other characters and blackmailing Mrs. Clennam, he really did nothing as a villain.

If there is one thing I have no complaints regarding “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is the excellent performances found in the production. I honestly have no complaints about the performances in the miniseries. I can even say this about those characters, whose portrayals by the writers that I found troubling. And yes, I am referring to Andy Serkis and Freema Agyeman’s performances as Rigoud and “Tattycoram”. Both gave excellent performances, even if I did not care how Dickens, Davies or the directors handled their characters. Emma Pierson, an actress I have never heard of, gave a superb and very entertaining peformance as Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s ambitious and rather blunt older sister. I would have say that Pierson’s performance struck me as the funniest in the miniseries. I was amazed at how intimidating Eddie Marsan looked at the rent collector, Mr. Pancks. Yet, Marsan went beyond his superficial appearance to portray one of the most compassionate, yet energetic characters in the production. I was also impressed by Russell Tovey’s portrayal of the love-sick John Chivery, who harbored unrequited love for Amy Dorrit. Tovey managed to give a very intense performance, without going over-the-top. And I found that quite an accomplishment.

However, there are a handful of performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from the leads Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen. On paper, the characters of Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam struck me as boring and one-dimensional. They were simply too goody two-shoes. But somehow, both Foy and McFadyen managed to inject a great deal of fire into their roles, making them not only interesting, but allowing me to care for them a great deal. Another outstanding performance came from Judy Parfitt, who portrayed Arthur’s guilt-ridden and cold mother, Mrs. Clennam. But instead of portraying the character as a one-note monstrous mother, Parfitt conveyed a good deal of Mrs. Clennam’s guilt regarding her husband’s will and inner emotional struggles over the memories of her marriage and what Arthur really meant to her. Another outstanding performance came from Tom Courtenay, who portrayed the vain and insecure William Dorrit. In fact, I would have to say that he gave the most complex and probably the best performance in the entire production. Courtenay managed to create contempt I felt toward his character with skillful acting, yet at the same time, he made William Dorrit so pathetic and sympathetic. I am amazed that he did not receive a nomination or acting award for his performance.

I now come back to that earlier question. Did “LITTLE DORRIT” improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a writer? Not really. Although I cannot deny that it is a beautiful looking production. Some of the subplots not only struck me as interesting, but also relevant to today’s economic situation. And the miniseries featured some outstanding performances from a cast led by Claire Foy and Matthew McFayden. But some of the other subplots, which originated in Dickens’ novel struck me as either troubling or unimpressive. So . . . I am not quite a fan of his. Not yet. But despite its flaws, I am a fan of this 2008 adaptation of his 1855-1857 novel.