Some stories are so timeless they are produced over and over. Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights . . . Last time in Top 10 Desert Island Historical Movies, I picked obscurish period films, hoping I might suggest something new you’d want to see, then email me to discuss it late into the night like the insomniac little geeks that we are. I’m probably picking a fight in naming the definitively best Austen and Brontë adaptations. The staples, conspicuously missing from the Desert Island list. Consider this list an annex, because who could survive without these classics? Not me.
Top Five Austen and Brontë Movie Adaptations
1. Let’s get this out of the way. Hands-down, the best adaptation of Pride and Prejudice features a heroine with her mouth not constantly hanging agape: the much-beloved 6-episode version from A&E. Why? Because Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle understand what gives regency romance its heat: the power of a sideways glance or a gloved touch. Emotional outbursts and flailing gestures are for modern gum-chewing Americans, not Lizzie Bennet. The development between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth happens between the lines, and this version really makes it sing.
I expect some antagony from fans of the 2005 Pride & Prejudice starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. Despite beautiful cinematography, an epic and emotive soundtrack by Marianelli, and the deliciously surly Judi Dench as Lady de Bourgh, I found some faults unforgivable. The squalor of the Bennet’s estate and the women’s perpetually disheveled coifs, for example. Did I mention the heroine’s mouth hanging open throughout? Matthew Macfayden is a passable Mr. Darcy with his reserve and cold manners, but Colin Firth simply is Mr. Darcy. Authority, arrogance, animal magnetism: Alpha male! The 2005 P&P is good. I was moved… but it was the music and the scenery I found inspiring, not so much the actors’ performances. While each contributed noteworthy performances individually, I found the chemistry between the lead characters unconvincing, and that’s why it comes in second. The A&E Pride & Prejudice, however, satisfies on all counts.
2. Wuthering Heights is about love and hate, mixed. Oh, and everybody dies, but what else is expected from the gothic horror / romance that’s scandalized its readership since 1847? A Wuthering Heights film adaptation worthy of Brontë’s novel should feel somewhat like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
I thought the Ralph Fiennes / Juliette Binoche version was my favorite – it boasts the best soundtrack and stunning cinematography – until I saw the 2009 Tom Hardy version from Masterpiece Theater. (The 1939 Laurence Oliver version is also notable.) This one is better. While Ralph Fiennes looks more the part of the gypsy-turned-gentleman, Tom Hardy blew me away with his highly emotional portrayal of Heathcliff. Hatred burns in his eyes, then tenderness the next moment. His physical presence is virile but not too refined; his understated wildness makes him appealing. Most importantly, he made me believe his violence and ruthlessness stems from his twisted love for Cathy. The scene where he mourns her, his demonic soul-rending shriek as he clutches the headstone and curses her soul to unrest until he joins her, is pure art, and devastating.
Charlotte Riley’s Cathy is a triumph. Bewitching, free-spirited, she also manages to avoid the naïvete overly done in other versions. She doesn’t shy away from the modernly gauche notion of being dominated by a man, as Hardy’s Heathcliff does so unapologetically. She meets Hardy’s intensity head-on, creating an intense chemistry on screen. The secondary characters are masterfully done without exception. The screenplay is impeccable. Vengeance and devotion, melodrama, a bleak setting on the northern moors – that’s Emily Brontë, and this version is the truest.
3. My favorite Sense & Sensibility used to be the 1999 version starring Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Grant. It’s endearing and has its shining moments, despite the oafish Grant as Edward Ferrars. The 2008 BBC Sense & Sensibility adaptation captures the emotional depth of the story I believe Austen intended. Not just wit and pretty manners, Austen’s novels highlight the hypocrisy of society, condemns selfishness and folly, and protests women’s dependence on men. Sense & Sensibility’s ambitious plot depends on the success of no less than six colorful important characters, and this version has no weak links. The moments of disappointment and tragedy are not trivialized, and the villains are truly detestable. The characters credited with more reserve (Elinor and Edward) infused their roles with plenty of strength, which saved them from being sulky martyrs. Since so many other adaptations fall flat, this romance author approves the extra attention to the love stories in the BBC version.
4. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre might be the most frequently produced historical. I count ten versions on Amazon.com. I own five. No contest, the best is the 2011 Jane Eyre adaptation with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska (say that fast five times). Yes, the plot is a bit pared down, but I’m not complaining, since so many Jane Eyre screenplays err in the pacing (frankly, they drag) and falter in the most essential element: romance. As in any Brontë story, love pushes the boundaries of ethics, even transcends the mortal realm. This version delivers, with a capital D. Or is it F, for Fassbender? Enough said.
Blind persons might ask, what makes Fassbender’s Rochester so superior? It’s his masterful balance of the character’s dual natures. Mr. Rochester is embittered and world-weary yet has the soul of a poet, with the capacity to love deeply. Fassbender’s portrayal masters all that, plus his Rochester has both vitality and maturity, a contradiction which makes the attraction between him and Jane believable. This is reinforced by Mia Wasikowska’s vulnerable but strong Jane, who meets Fassbender’s derision with queenly defiance. The sum of it all? Edgy, artistic passion. Few other actors escaped the unsettling “daddy issues” vibe, with an overly haggard Rochester kissing a too-innocent Jane, resulting in an “Eew!” reaction from the viewer. Conversely, Michael and Mia had me fanning myself.
Beyond the A+ chemistry, the two actors succeed in loading their scenes with meaningful silence, wherein they exchange suspicion, reluctant admiration, resentment, fascination, and desire beyond the dialogue. As it should be, the focus is on Jane’s romantic awakening and Mr. Rochester’s healing, not “How cranky can we make Mr. Rochester?” Aided by the magical, emotive and slightly spooky soundtrack in the romantic tradition of Elgar and Samuel Barber (Marianelli again – no wonder), the overall theme of desolation versus redemption really shines, in all its gothic glory.
5. I confess to being an emotional curmudgeon. Blame it on my Swiss ancestors, a statue probably weeps more often than I do. At the end of BBC’s 2009 Emma, I shed a tear or two, muttering sappy phrases like “It’s just so beautiful!” With such expressive, sublime performances from the cast, I forgot I was watching a movie. The incomparable Ramola Garai turns every role she plays to gold but outdoes herself as Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. She practically glows with rosy innocence. With nods to Gwenyth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam for their delightful, humorous portrayals in the 1996 adaptation, I must declare the BBC version superior in almost every regard. I can forgive the liberties taken with the plot in exchange for the extra dose of vitality. Mr. Woodhouse is more eccentric and endearing. Emma is painfully frivolous – I was embarrassed for her – then she emerges with a realistic sense of charity and dignity. Miss Smith seems a more viable threat to the “happily ever after.” Mr. Elton is beyond annoying; he is insufferable. In this version, Mr. Churchill’s manipulations cross from careless to dastardly. This is the most passionate Mr. Knightley portrayal I’ve seen, which makes him more heroic. The BBC version is dynamic yet does justice to the lovely pastoral spirit of the story. If you only see one version of Emma, this is it.
There you have it, Austen and Brontë fans. What do you think? Agree? Or did I get it all wrong? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you.
I wish we had space to mention other important historical adaptations. What about Les Miserables? Jane Austen’s Persuasion? Little Dorritt, The Buccaneers, Tess of the D’Urbervilles . . . so many wonderful movies and no shortage of laundry. Next time I’ll make a list of Historical Movies to Enjoy While Folding Laundry.