An Eyre of intelligence

The creative team rises to the challenge of Brontë's novel, with pleasing results

<strong>Jane Eyr

"You are an intelligent, thinking woman," Rochester tells Jane Eyre when he reprimands her for asking permission to peruse the books in his library at Thornfield Hall. The challenge to which the director Susanna White and her adaptor, Sandy Welch, have chosen to rise is to make an intelligent, thinking Jane Eyre (Sundays, 9pm). To be avoided, on the one side, is the Scylla of the OTT Gothic novel: everyone knows there is a madwoman in Rochester's attic, but this adaptation reminds us that there are monsters on Jane's sketch pad, too. On the other side lies the Charybdis of a sloppy romance: Rochester, the Byronic owner of Thornfield, is the prototype for every tall, dark and smirking nob Barbara Cartland ever wrote about. But navigate between the two, and you discover the first great English Bildungsroman in which hero and heroine are given a sentimental education.

Let no one tell you this novel lacks absurdities. Rochester at one stage turns up in drag, disguised as a gypsy fortune-teller. On the page, you have Jane's voice to make credible the incredible. On television, you rely on your actors. White has cast perfectly. Jane is played by Ruth Wilson, an unknown 24-year-old fresh out of drama school. There is not a reaction shot in which she does not look intelligent, and not a line she delivers that does not suggest the thinking behind it. Her Donald Duck mouth and heavy eyebrows give her face too much character for beauty, yet any intelligent man might fall for it (particularly if the alternative is Blanche's porcelain mask). "That look," Rochester says. "No judgement, no pity. That look would pry secrets from the darkest souls." He says it with anticipation.

Toby Stephens, James Bond's last known adversary and a convincing Tony Armstrong-Jones in 2005 in The Queen's Sister, at last gets a chance to play a villain with a soul worth saving. His Rochester is in love with his own suffering, in awe of his own decadence. He calls Jane a witch, but it is his own dark past that has bewitched him. Yet, as Mrs Fairfax says, the master is not without humour. Without giving him a heart of gold, Stephens lets you know that, while Rochester's instinct is to laugh at everyone, his ambition is to find someone to laugh with. In a reversal of the romantic stereotype, Rochester loves Jane because she is that someone. Asked if she finds him attractive, Jane wins a chuckle from him and us by saying "No" and then adding that he is not repellent either.

Stephens and Wilson need to be good because this is no BBC Bleak House (on which White also worked). There is no long list of character actors. Tara Fitzgerald, as the infant Jane's unloving aunt, is no sooner seen than gone. Richard McCabe stands out as vindictive Mr Brocklehurst, headmaster of Lowood School - but Eyre's schooldays are done with in ten minutes. Her friendship with Helen Burns is disposed of in half that time. Pam Ferris as Grace Poole, keeper of the first Mrs R in the north tower, is seen mainly bustling down corridors.

These excepted, every long shot is a composition of beauty. Most tell a story, too. The finger of God points down from a mural at a young Eyre, framed for lying. Her fellow pupils, dressed identically in white caps, are like clones. Respectable society is as uniform as the wooden coffins in which Helen Burns's fellow victims of consumption are carried off.

The Derbyshire countryside has rarely looked so consistently cold and grey, either. Out of its mists, to confront Jane for the first time, rides Rochester: black hair, black cape and black stallion. But once at Thornfield, he becomes associated with warmth: orange hues lick his face at the fireside, the sun illuminates him on a picnic and, at the end of episode one, his bed is engulfed in flames. The question Jane will have to answer is whether the fire within is, or is not, hellish.

The conceit of the book is that while Rochester believes Eyre, in her sinless youth, to be in need of a sentimental education into life's horrors, it is he who ends up taught a lesson in humanity by her. His blinding - the symbolic castration that brings Jane back to him - is the creepiest moment in the book, not to mention the most absurd. I hope this magical adaptation has the sorcery to make us accept it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act