One of the most popular novels ever written, Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," published in 1847, still mesmerizes readers primarily because of its central relationship: the love affair between the plain but guileless governess Jane Eyre and her employer, the wealthy, tempestuous Edward Rochester.
More than a dozen Jane Eyres and Edward Rochesters have inhabited movie or TV screens over the years, including Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (1944), Susannah York and George C. Scott (1970), Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (1983), and Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt (1996). Nearly always, despite the compelling story, one of the leading performers has been miscast, or the chemistry has gone awry.
Now, in this four-hour "Masterpiece Theatre" production starring newcomer Ruth Wilson and stage actor Toby Stephens, the casting is close to perfect. Everything else -- and there's plenty else to enjoy -- is a bonus. It airs at 9 p.m. today and next Sunday on WQED.
It takes a while to warm up to Wilson's Jane, and that's not a bad thing; we are as curious about Jane as those around her must be, and although we sympathize with her, we must grow to like her.
Jane's eight years of abuse at Lowood school have taught her to fear relationships, and she rarely smiles, even though, with her huge upper lip, smiling transforms her -- as we see when she allows herself to fall in love. She is also a steadfast friend to Rochester, and she can keep his secrets.
As Rochester, Toby Stephens, son of acting legends Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens, is a much handsomer, more humorous, less moody Rochester than we usually see. He is a desperate deceiver and seducer of Jane, whom he loves -- even though the north wing of his castle, Thornfield Hall, hides an ominous secret that dooms any possible marriage.
Inevitably, this miniseries will be compared to A&E's splendid 1995 "Pride and Prejudice," starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and the comparisons are mostly justified. British audiences and critics were enthusiastic when the series ran on BBC last fall.
The director, Susanna White ("Bleak House"), and screenwriter, Sandy Welch ("Our Mutual Friend"), provide a feminine and feminist sensibility. Several examples: Jane is permitted to be portrayed as unattractive (unlike, say, when the gorgeous Joan Fontaine played the role); in one of the best scenes, Jane is instrumental in extinguishing the fire in Rochester's bedroom; and a madwoman who is key to the plot is shown to be victim as well as menace.
In its fidelity to Bronte, this miniseries includes a long segment from the book that's nearly always omitted on screen: After Jane has fled from Thornfield Hall, she takes refuge with St. John Rivers, a would-be missionary who proposes to her, and his sisters. This hiatus precedes an unforgettable return to a much-changed soulmate.
The cast includes Tara Fitzgerald ("Brassed Off") as Mrs. Reed, Jane's cold-blooded aunt; Francesca Annis ("Macbeth," 1971) as Lady Ingram, who strives to be Rochester's mother-in-law, and Christina Cole ("He Knew He Was Right") as her daughter, Blanche; and Pam Ferris ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") as the servant Grace Poole, who guards the house's dark secret.
This miniseries retains the conventions of the gothic genre -- the spooky castle, the nighttime screams, mysterious midnight stabbings and maulings, the Gypsy fortune-teller, the supernatural carryings-on -- but most important, it gives a passionate new take to an archetypal love story. This production of "Jane Eyre" holds its own against any other.
When: 9 p.m. Jan. 21 and Jan. 28, WQED.
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Toby Stephens.
Jim Heinrich can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1851.