Pondering the latest remakes of the Brontë sisters’ novels

I recently saw the trailer for Bright Star (see trailer below), which is about the poet John Keats and his love and poetic inspiration Fanny Brawne. It looks pretty good, especially the fact that it’s based on a true story. Being a fan of period pieces — with Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility being my utmost favorite — I might check that one out. Hopefully it’s better than the rather underwhelming Becoming Jane (which I had hoped to like better than I did). I’m not familiar with Ben Whishaw’s work other than seeing him in the creepy Perfume trailer, but Abbie Cornish was good in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Dalton as Bronte Sisters' Heroes
Timothy Dalton as Bronte Sisters' Heroes

Now, seeing that trailer made me ponder about the developments of the Brontë sisters works — yup, you guessed it: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights — which have been done many times over! Just by searching in IMDB, there are 20 and 15 TV and film adaptations respectively, and I don’t think they’re done with either anytime soon. My favorite version of the Jane Eyre adaptation pretty much depends on who plays the role of Rochester. Well I’m a girl, so naturally! It’s no coincidence that it’s played by the most underrated thespian on the planet: Timothy Dalton, who also happens to play another Brontë’s literary hero Heathcliff in 1970.

Let’s talk about Wuthering Heights first. Published in 1847, Emily Brontë’s novel is a tempestuous and tragic love story across social classes between Heathcliff and Catherine. It’s a dark, brutal and eerie tale of unrequited, unbridled love that shall remain timeless. I haven’t seen the Ralph Fiennes version with Juliette Binoche as Cathy, but based on the 1970 version, Dalton was excellent as the brooding, ferocious yet bewitching protagonist. So when I heard they’ve picked Ed Westwick for the 2010 adaptation, let’s just say I’m not at all keen on it. I mean, come on, that teenybopper from Gossip Girl? So he’s got dark hair and a Brit, but among the lineup of Fiennes, Dalton, Laurence Olivier, Ian McShane, just where does Westwick fit in?? Unless this is a WB TV version perhaps? [scratching head]

Although Heathcliff is generally typecast as a romantic hero, his brutality and madness actually makes him quite an unsympathetic anti-hero. It’s a rare and complex persona that requires a certain actor with substantial talent and charisma to pull it off believably. Heath Ledger, who reportedly is named after that legendary character, would be perfect in this role. Other more spot-on contenders would be Henry Cavill (The Tudors), James McAvoy (Atonement), Rupert Friend (Cheri), those are just on the top of my head. Oh, I could see Lee Pace (The Fall) in this role, too, he’s got a strong presence on screen and fellow movie blogger Meredith would agree he’s got dramatic acting chops in spades. Gemma Arterton (agent Strawberry Fields in Bond’s Quantum of Solace) seems an ok choice as the equally troubled Kathy, although I’ll be tired of seeing her as she’s going to be so many films next year (Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia). Casting aside, I’m curious to see how loyal this version would be to the novel (this UK site has a pretty comprehensive list of WH adaptations and how they fare). It’s far more than just two young people falling in love. The dark, gothic theme of the book is filled with grim and unpleasant characters that’s tricky to translate to screen.  My gut tells me with Westwick on tap, they’ll probably sugarcoat this intricate story to appeal to the junior masses.

Now, as for Jane Eyre, the equally enduring novel by Charlotte Brontë, the heroine is a lowly governess who falls in love with her much older boss, Edward Rochester. She’s the “poor, obscure, plain and little” girl who tantalize Rochester, but remains stern despite her strong feelings for him. I love the scene where Dalton’s Rochester held the petite Jane (played by Zelah Clarke) in his arms when she threatened to leave him, and he said, “how could something so small be so indomitable?” There are so many heart-wrenching scenes in that BBC miniseries, but I wish the production (especially the lighting and Jane’s costume) and pacing were a bit more appealing.

Juno actress Ellen Page — who’s Canadian — has been signed on to play Jane, which irked the British film industry that such a famous British role went to someone from across the Atlantic. I’m still on the fence on that myself. Although she looks the part, I don’t know if she’d be my first choice. Nevertheless, I think she’s a good actress so I hope she’ll surprise me. They have yet to find the actor to play Rochester though, which I’d be anxious to see who ends up scoring such a classic character. Like I mention above, Dalton forever defined the role for me. I know I’m going to draw a lot of flak from a plethora of his fans, but BBC 2006 version’s Toby Stephens just didn’t come close to Dalton’s mesmerizing portrayal. He wasn’t a bad choice, but Dalton set such a high standard that I have yet to see anyone else top him. Even Dalton himself said Rochester was the highlight of his career, and I agree. The IMDB reviewer of the miniseries said it all:

Rochester is, famously, not handsome; Jane and Rochester are literature’s famous ugly couple. And Timothy Dalton is nothing if not stunningly handsome. But Dalton gives a mesmerizing performance as Rochester. He just blew me away. I’ve never seen anything like his utter devotion to the role, the text, the dialogue, and Rochester’s love for Jane. Dalton brings the page’s Rochester to quivering life on screen.

Rochester’s imperiousness, his humor, his rage, his vulnerability: Dalton conveys all, sometimes seconds apart. It’s stunning.

The casting director in me has been dreamily jotting down which actors have the potential to fill such big shoes of playing Rochester. If we’re to be loyal to Bronte’s book, he’d shouldn’t be someone classically good looking. But that shouldn’t be a barrier either, as personifying Rochester ought to go beyond the physical form. Just like Dalton, who despite his stunning good looks, was astutely able to capture the inner turmoil and essence of the hero’s byronic nature. Byronic is essentially possessing a forlorn, temperamental, melancholic characteristic with a great disdain and regret over his dark past. With that in mind, here are my top picks:

  1. Richard Armitage – I mention Richard a lot on my blog and for good reason: he’s perplexingly underused! If you’ve seen him in North & South, you know he’d be perfect as Rochester. He can do forlorn and brooding on cue. Add a touch of madness and voila!
  2. Rufus Sewell – Rufus is known to play charming bad boys so this role would fit him like a glove! Imagine watching those lovely, dreamy eyes glancing at miss Eyre with secret longings despite his devil-may-care exterior.
  3. Dougray Scott – This underrated Scot has proven his range, he’s played a villain in MI2, a prince in Ever After and WW II code breaker in Enigma. He’s somehow got a permanent gloom in his eyes even when he smiles, which would suit Rochester byronic nature nicely IMO.
  4. Joseph Fiennes – The darker looking of the Fiennes brothers, Joseph is the less well-known of the two, but no less talented. Convincing as English literature greatest figure in Shakespeare in Love and a prolific stage actor, I’d think this talented actor would do the Rochester role justice.
  5. James Caviezel – Best known in his role as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, I first noticed this Washington state native in the costume drama The Count of Monte Christo. He’s got that melancholic look about him, yet he’s played a villain convincingly (Deja Vu). If he could nail the British accent down, I’d love to see him in the role.

Now, I’m purposely going with somewhat obscure (to most moviegoers anyway) actors here, but these more well-known thespians could be great in this role as well:

  • Daniel Day-Lewis – Duh! Is there any role this guy can’t do? He might be a bit too old though at 52, as Rochester is supposed to be in his late 30s.
  • Gerard Butler – He’s played dark, tortured soul believably as Phantom, so no doubt he could do Rochester just as well and be so darn sexy to boot!
  • Johnny Depp – No stranger to costume drama, Johnny will bring a quirkier version of the Thornfield Hall master. Not only can he get the accent down, we know there’s that tortured-soul quality about him that’s wildly captivating.
  • Clive Owen – The tall + dark Brit naturally looks moody and brooding, and with an Oscar for one of his dramatically brutal performance in Closer, we know he can tackle this role.
  • Gary Oldman – He might bring out the more sinister side of Rochester. Just like Day-Lewis, Oldman can pretty much believably play any role, but at 51, he might also be a bit too old.
  • Hugh Jackman – The last romantic period piece he did in Kate & Leopold was absolutely swoon-worthy, despite the lame plot. He would be the first Aussie to play Rochester, and those tight-fitting Victorian costume would fit him oh so well!

So what do you think, folks? Do you find any of these actors worthy of playing Rochester?