Timothy Dalton stars in the underrated 1983 Jane Eyre adaptation.
Most likely, if you love costume drama, you’ve seen some adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre about the tortured Rochester and the impassioned Jane.
If you are entirely new to the story of Jane Eyre, it’s about a young girl (Jane), orphaned as a baby and raised by her cruel aunt. When she’s ten, she’s sent off to Lowood school’s horrific atmosphere until she’s able to leave at eighteen by advertising for a position as a governess.
It’s then she moves to Thornfield and meets the mysterious master of the hall, Mr. Rochester. They have a deep soul connection and fall in love. But with secrets at every corner and a foreboding sense of doom, will they be able to be together?
Jane Eyre, published by Charlotte Brontë in 1847, quickly became a success and has since gone on to be adapted over twenty times. The first adaptation appeared not soon after the introduction of film itself in 1910. And the adaptations haven’t stopped coming since.
With all of the adaptations out there, which ones are the best to watch? No doubt, there are some interpretations better than others. I’m just going to focus on the more current ones for now (I already feel another blog post about the best Jane Eyre adaptations coming).
The most recent significant adaptation is the 2011 film with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, which brought a gothic horror style to the story; before that, the unforgettable 2006 version with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson. Then there are the two ’90s adaptations, one that showcased Anna Paquin as a young Jane.
In the modern-day, it’s easy to overlook the 1983 Jane Eyre BBC miniseries when you have Toby Stephens or Michael Fassbender to watch as Mr. Rochester. Plus, Ruth Wilson’s incredible performance as Jane verges on perfection. Even I didn’t bother to watch the Jane Eyre 1983 version for a while. But I have since atoned to the error of my ways.
Jane Eyre (1983)
Ten Reasons to Watch
So without further ado, here are ten fantastic reasons to revisit the 1983 adaptation of Jane Eyre.
#1 Timothy Dalton.
With his brooding performance and deep understanding of how to play a Byronic Hero, he’s the perfect Rochester. Dalton often gets overlooked in performances, despite his undeniable talent.
He’s typically forgotten as James Bond, for instance, even though he brought a similar type of performance (a serious world-weary man who may quit the service at any time; in fact, he may be the closest to the character’s original intent in the books) as Daniel Craig…just 20 years earlier.
He does the same with Rochester. Dalton understands the role as intended by Brontë, and that makes watching this adaptation worth it.
#2 Zelah Clark as Jane.
Sure, I think it may be impossible to top what I believe to be the quintessential performance of Jane Eyre by Ruth Wilson, but Zelah does a fine job as well. She understands how to portray an introvert.
She keeps her face stoical, so it becomes all the more surprising when she suddenly has a passionate response to a situation. You can sense the deep emotions brewing inside a girl who has had to learn to keep her feelings hidden so as not to be beaten (even though it’s her true nature to be passionate).
I also like Zelah’s performance because she portrays Jane’s faults as well as her strengths. The director and screenwriter were brave enough to showcase Jane’s weaknesses, which Charlotte would have been pleased with (she disliked that everyone turned Jane into a saint).
#3 There are eleven episodes.
What does that mean exactly? It means there’s ample time to cover what’s in the book. There are even a few new scenes at that (not all of them work, mind you, but most of them are interesting anyway). More likely than not, you will get to see some of your favorite scenes from the book.
#4 The second episode at Lowood School.
Because of the long-running time of the series, there was plenty of time to explore Jane’s experiences at Lowood School. We get to know her tragic best friend, Helen Burns, and her inspiring teacher, Miss Temple. We see the ups, and we see the downs.
It’s also quite enjoyable to watch the impassioned young Jane react to the abused Helen’s almost “passive” reactions. This episode reminds me of an Anne Shirley spectacle: if she was brought to a horrible school instead of the loving Matthew and Marilla.
Most adaptations don’t have the time to show scenes from the book here. But this adaptation does, making it worth watching.
#5 Did I mention Timothy Dalton?
Seriously, though, he was born to play this role. He’s tall, dark, and rugged and the best-looking Rochester of any adaptation. With his melodic Welsh voice and soulful eyes, it’s hard not to be drawn into his performance.
Some people argue he’s too good-looking for the role. But let’s be clear; in the novel, Brontë does not describe Mr. Rochester as ugly. He’s rugged with “deep eyes.”
She depicts him as not being beautiful…at least, “according to rule.” Perhaps in that time, a more feminine gentlemanly image was considered ideal. Even if Timothy Dalton is “too” handsome, I think we can forgive him for that “fault.”
#6 Which brings me to my next point – this adaptation had the guts (obviously Timothy Dalton was willing to do it) to have Mr. Rochester dress up as an old gypsy woman in a famous game-playing scene from the novel.
Most versions haven’t even tried, thinking it too difficult to portray. But Dalton pulls it off. The point of the scene is to read the fortunes of all his wealthy female guests (who he finds to be cruel) and, ultimately, Jane to draw out her feelings.
She won’t have any of the nonsense, but at least it was good fun for Rochester. Timothy Dalton dressed up in female clothes and disguised his voice as an older woman. Even the fantastic 2006 adaptation didn’t do it. Because of this scene, I give the production an extra point.
#7 It’s romantic.
As soon as Mr. Rochester enters the series, it becomes an entertaining gothic spectacle. The two actors have chemistry, with Dalton exuding a passion that matches Jane’s inner impassioned nature. He sizzles on screen and shows the authentic rage of a Byronic struggling with inner demons.
The proposal scene is excellent. The director chose to film it in the dark, which is a fascinating choice. It foreshadows the doom of the proposal while also presenting Jane’s true feelings and Rochester’s intense, almost obsessive love. This series is at its best when it’s romantic. It’s stylized for sure, like classic films…just in the ’80s and in color.
#8 Beauty and the Beast.
The screenwriter and director understood Brontë’s purposeful intent to compare this to the fairy tale. Rochester will have her in the drawing-room every night at the same time, just like the Beast requesting Beauty for dinner every night.
When Jane reunites with Rochester in the end, archetypal themes of Beauty and the Beast appear. The shots focus on Jane lovingly touching the face of the now outwardly ‘beastly’ Rochester. With Jane Eyre, it’s all about the deep soul connection, not the outward appearance.
#9 The love story of St. John and Miss Oliver.
It’s easy to overlook this story that works as a foil to Jane and Rochester’s love story. But it’s essential in the novel. St. John is the opposite of Jane and refuses to follow his heart. He loves Rosamond Oliver but cannot be with her because she (in his mind) would not be suitable as a wife.
Just about every adaptation ignores this whole side story but not this one. They understand the importance of it. The 2006 version also visited it, but I would argue that the 1983 adaptation has a better St. John that more clearly presents the themes Brontë intended.
#10 Oh…and Timothy Dalton.
Well, that about wraps it up! If I haven’t convinced you yet to watch the 1983 Jane Eyre adaptation, let me point out I think Timothy Dalton is every bit as good as Toby Stephens from the 2006 miniseries (something I never thought I’d say). And he is perhaps even a little bit closer to the character in the book.
While Toby plays off the sarcasm with great skill (with no two actors having matched the chemistry between him and Ruth Wilson), Dalton understands how to capture the true essence of a Byronic.
Timothy Dalton is undoubtedly one of the quintessential actors of Byronic Heroes (Aidan Turner is on the up and up and plays the fantastic Byronic Mitchell from BBC’s Being Human as well as the Byronic Ross Poldark). No one plays brooding and tortured better than he does. If any actor wants tips on playing one, they need to look no further than Timothy Dalton.
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not a perfect production. There is a touch of melodrama at times, particularly in the first episode, and no doubt, some will find it old-fashioned, but when you look at it as a whole, it’s pretty fantastic.
Where to Watch: BritBox. You can also buy it on DVD.
Have you seen the 1983 Jane Eyre adaptation? What did you think? If you had to pick the best adaptation of Jane Eyre, which one would you choose? Sound off below…
(Note: This review has been updated for 2020 and was initially published in 2013.)