There's something unexpectedly potent and new about PBS's adaptation of "Jane Eyre." As the camera inches into the personal space of Charlotte Bronte's austere characters, it forces a sense of contemporary intimacy onto them. The two-part miniseries, which premieres Sunday night at 9 on Channel 2, closes in on their distance, pushing through their Victorian psychological roadblocks to discover a pair of warm, human lovers.
No, don't worry. There are no sex scenes between plain Jane and stern Rochester in this "Masterpiece Theatre," which was directed by Susanna White of "Bleak House" and written by Sandy Welch of "Our Mutual Friend." There is no "Reader, I slept with him." Ever respectful of its source, the miniseries doesn't add on sexuality so much as it seeks and finds character depth and dimensionality. And it helps that, as Jane and Rochester, Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens are open, soulful actors. More than some of the famous pairings -- Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles , Susannah York and George C. Scott -- they keep things down to earth.
As in Bronte's 1847 novel, we meet the young Jane as a victim of her spiteful aunt, and we follow her through her abused years at Lowood school before she arrives at Rochester's Thornfield Hall as a governess. But the greater part of the PBS miniseries is devoted to fleshing out the bond between Jane and Rochester -- their rare friendship, their dawning consciousness of love, their obstacles.
In each other, the pair come to see the potential for new selves, beyond the emotional barriers created by their dramatic pasts. To put it in modern lingo, they therapize each other. "That look," Rochester says to Jane early on. "No judgment. No pity. That look could pry secrets from the blackest souls." Even the Gothic mystery of the arsonist in the Thornfield tower is quite secondary in this version -- it's but a small metaphor for Rochester's emotional resistance to Jane, rather than a reason for it.
Stephens, the son of actors Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens , makes an edgy Rochester, and not a cold one. He projects a defensive cynicism born of tragedy and resignation; he's not just an emo hero who's fashionably removed. And he is complemented by Wilson's equally rich performance. Her Jane is modest, but not subservient. When she gives a trusting smile, at long last, it's unashamedly bright and strong. Together, Stephens and Wilson evoke an attraction of minds without ever seeming cerebral.
But there is one serious problem with their pairing, and it undermines Part 2 of "Jane Eyre" next Sunday. For all their chemistry as a couple on the verge of love, Stephens and Wilson lack spark once Jane and Rochester are involved. It's not uncommon in romantic movies and, sometimes, in romance: The wanting is more powerful than the getting. Once they commit , Jane and Rochester's rapport becomes shallow, their kisses unconvincing.
Indeed, the actors obviously aren't kissing; they're doing some amateur mouth-on-chin fakery. Really, bad fake kissing is unforgivable in a story that has built up to physical contact with such caution. The sets are so realistic and the writing is so respectful of incremental personality changes, but the kisses are phony? Bronte's hard-luck couple deserves better.