“We’re not the platonic sort Jane”
The 2006 BBC take on Jane Eyre marked Ruth Wilson’s major television debut and in quite some style too. Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous heroine is surely one of literature’s most loved but it is a challenge that Wilson rises to excellently, with the kind of nuanced sensitive portrayal that will ensure that this version will remain near the top of the ever-growing pile of adaptations of this story. Alongside Toby Stephens as Rochester, she drives this clear-sighted, uncomplicated retelling over four hour-long episodes as Jane negotiates the many travails of her life.
From being abandoned as a poor relation with a dour aunt to the unfriendly walls of Lowood School and then on to her first job as governess to a young girl in a household where the promise of love and genuine affection offer a first chance at happiness, but also where secrets abound and threaten to snatch it away before it has even started. Wilson makes Jane a straightforward girl, always pragmatic in the face of adversity and even as she melts in the face of kindness, whether from Lorraine Ashbourne’s kindly Mrs Fairfax or the one that eventually comes from Rochester, she has enough nous to be able to retain her poise. Stephens really is good here too, balancing the macho arrogance of the man with a more romantic sensibility that comes through but always keeping each element in play so we never forget the complexity of the man, yet remaining entirely drawn by his charisma.
Falling squarely in the tradition of strong BBC period productions means that there is some superbly luxury casting in the ensemble. Tara Fitzgerald as the embittered aunt, Pam Ferris is the redoubtable Grace Poole who harbours Rochester’s secret, Francesca Annis does what she does best as Lady Ingram, mother of Christina Cole’s accomplished Blanche, Anne Reid, Richard McCabe and Charity Wakefield also all pop up briefly. The Rivers family is particularly well cast – Andrew Buchan an appealing and convincing St John and Annabel Scholey and Emma Lowndes a pair of engaging sisters.
But alongside the cast, a major asset of the show comes from the strength of the directorial vision, Susanna White, and Sandy Welch’s adaptation too, foregoes the much-vaunted act of ‘making it their own’ by keeping a mostly faithful line to the source material and working on creating a refreshed version of the story which feels sparklingly fresh and genuinely new-minted. Focusing on the middle section of Jane’s time at Thornfield allows them to invest more time and emotion in the relationship with Rochester which crackles with sexual energy as well as intellectual connection, this is a couple one cannot help but root for and definitely believe in.
And White’s use of long, almost impressionistic shots keeps a visual grace to the show that is most alluring. She makes excellent use of silences, especially with Wilson’s long baleful stares, and there’s any number of gorgeous scenes throughout the four hours – the extended sequence in the wedding dress looks stunning and the wooziness of the post-Moors breakdown is a lovely touch. A top class piece of drama, an excellent adaptation of a much loved work and for Ruth Wilson, a fabulous showcase for an actress very much coming into her own.