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Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Voice of Fandom or 'The Handsome Mr. Rochester'

Well, now that the new pictures from the BBC have rolled in and everyone has had a chance to take it all in, the reactions are starting to crop up all over the internet. Yesterday I had some thoughts about a very swift change in the direction of some of the internet discussion on this 2006 production. Now, a news source is hinting a the issue. From The Stage:

Jane Eyre. A nicely lavish BBC costume drama ticks several boxes before it’s even in the can, but the spectre of the hit-and-miss Toby Stephens as Rochester has me furrowing my brow in consternation.

I think this means it looks good. I don't quite understand the can imagery. Anyway, Toby Stephens. I have never seen him act before. I have said so in the comments, and some kind soul sent me a link so that I could see him play Hamlet but I thought better of doing that. I don't want to have any expectations. That said, I was very disappointed when I heard that he had been cast because I knew that he had already been in a Bronte film before, and also I really wished to see an unknown actor play the part. Several of my friends, on the other hand (who really really wanted Richard Armitage to play Mr. R...) were less than impressed as well for the same reason cited by the author above. In fact, the vast majority of discussion on the topic was centered around a feeling that he was an odd, perhaps a bad choice.

And then... two days ago, the BBC release this picture (posted earlier) and it all changed. Suddenly, one photograph convinced more and more people that not only could he play the part, why, he would be the very best! I am surprised there aren't bets out there for whether or not he can act better than Timothy Dalton... And this really surprises me, because I am naive and believe that, surely, we would have to see his performance first before we made claims like that.

Some time ago, Bronteana reader Mysticgypsy began a discussion about how we judge actors on their performance as Rochester, whether or not a large part of our decision is based on their appearance. Those who spoke up were unanimous that appearance should not be a factor. But, I think that we now have to admit that quite a lot of it is based on appearance- in practice.


Aidan Brack said...

As probably the most vocal person on the board against his casting I have to say that the picture made him go up slightly in my estimations and it's not the handsome issue. For me I appreciate that he looks quite different in appearance and mood than he did as Gilbert in Tenant (whom he played superbly).

My concerns relate to his ability to keep his upper lip and snarls under control. I suspect he can do it although it's impossible to tell from just one picture.

However wrong Toby Stephens is, I think Richard Armitage would have been worse however (I think he's a good actor but he's too well known as a "good guy" - Toby Stephens brings with him the expectation of him playing a shadier character).

Still I think you need to see them in action before you can effectively judge.

Liz said...

For me the problem with Stephens is that he is almost too obvious a choice (only a bit less than, say, Alan Rickman) – suggesting that the casting types haven’t thought too hard about the character. And there is lots of evidence that casting against type, or choosing a slightly unlikely candidate, often pays off. I wouldn’t have considered Uber-Rochester Jayston beforehand for example.

But – hope you don’t consider this a spoiler, bronteana ;-) – what comes out in all Stephens’ performances I’ve seen might also do for Rochester – ie a certain air of troubled dissipation, a slightly morbid desperation, a definite loneliness. As long as he doesn’t rely on just this for his performance, we will do very well. He is definitely hit and miss, but I think that mostly has depended on the director. So we shall see.

As for judging on appearances – well it is clear Stephens is more suitable than the fresh-faced, slightly frowny Armitage. From that we can guess that it is possible sometimes!

I have already condemned Dalton over at lero and am secretly glad that he may be upstaged as anyone’s Rochester. Wrong of me I know.

pennyforyourdreams said...

I can't understand the phrase "hit and miss" in relation to Toby's performances, he's uniformly good in everything and outstanding in some.

This is in part from what I've read (googled, slightly obsessively) since I found out he was playing this role and on the few times I've seen him act. He managed to keep his sneer in check in "Sharpe's Challenge" and in "Waking the Dead"; I've not seen him in any film apart from the Bond one, and as a marker for film acting capability it's not the best forum. I did see him on stage in "A Streetcar Named Desire" years ago and was incredibly impressed with his Stanley Kowalski. He can act, and I'm sure he'll be a great Rochester.

I've not seen Timothy Dalton's Rochester, but I bet it's good (dimples!), whether Toby can better him is debateable, it will rest on the script, the direction and of course Jane herself. A poor script and dodgy direction will do none of the cast any favours.

So, while I'm expecting a good performance from the entire cast,
the best Rochester, in my own humble opinion, is the one that is conjured up everytime I read the book. No actor ever comes close to the imagined one, no not even Colin Firth as Darcy in P&P came close to the one in my head.

Brontëana said...

to aidan brack:

Agreed. I was comforted by the lack of sneering especially- since I have heard about it from you and biedronezcka and the man himself admits he has a problem with controling his lip ;) I know that I focussed on the handsome issue but the debate was about appearance in general. It's sensible, I think, to be a little encouraged or discouraged by a picture like this but truly, the internet seems full of people prone to more extreme reactions.

Ex. When Thisbeciel first posted her screencaps from 1973 someone was so appalled that Sorcha was not more pretty than she is that they vowed never to see the production no matter how good it might be! ;)

Ruth Wilson is also getting little love based on her appearance as well. I'm imagining that she will have to work harder to overcome a certain bias that seems to be forming based on her 'hard' expressions.

I'm one of the few who have not seem Richard Armitage act either...

Brontëana said...

to liz:

That is what I was hoping for- surprise casting. The casting of Ruth was very exciting because this truly is her first time out and no one has any expectations based on her previous work. But when I saw that Stephens was cast, and also so many from the BBC's Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I was not enthusiastic. It did look an awful lot like they just imported them all from another Bronte film.

I'm hoping for a 'hit'. He seems to relish roles like Rochester and that will probably be reflected in his work. Actors who like Rochester, or see a challenge in him tend to give more nuanced performances.

lol My! Well, I know that I always feel a little glad when 'The Best' are toppled. I have no fears of Jayston losing his place in my heart, but there's always room for another Rochester providing he's not completely wrong (Ciaran Hinds, I'm looking at you, sir). Truly, I never did embrace the furvor that fans have for Dalton's Rochester. He did very well, I think. Sometimes there were sparks of brilliance about his scenes but he was not consistent. Most of the time he was just alright- stared vaguely and looked intense. Anyone, frankly, can do that. Just my opinion. He's still my 2nd favourite film Rochester. ;)

Brontëana said...

to pennyforyourdreams:

Maybe they mean by hit and miss that he is sometimes brilliant but at other times only average or passable? They use the same term for Tom McManus at the Stratford Festival here in Canada.

Dalton was very good, but there was a lot of room for improvement. He was very intense, tender, had a very good grasp of the character's inner life but for large stretches of his time onscreen you just got nothing from him but those intense stares. I got tired of them very quickly.

Aidan Brack said...


I think "hit and miss" is generally used to describe his casting in general. He can be, at his worst, quite theatrical and self-conscious. His turn in Poirot a few years ago was a clunker IIRC, and he wasn't terribly impressive in Onegin (though by no means bad - though it's been 6 years since I saw that so the memory may be unreliable).

That said, at his best he can be good. His performance in Cambridge Spies was generally very good, if a little prone to lip-quivering. He does a good job at playing multi-layered characters - I think he is less capable when playing someone one dimensional. My feeling is that he finds what is in the character on the page and draws it out, but doesn't add more than what is there by and large. If I am right then there probably won't be a problem given that Rochester is a fairly well-drawn and contradictory character.

I agree that few really match to the character on the page. As for Dalton - I'd agree with Bronteana to a large degree. It's a competent performance but the proposal scene is weak and he sometimes is too clearly acting. He handles the humour beautifully though and the scenes with him sitting with Jane in the garden are wonderful.

Aidan Brack said...

Bronteana: I am hopeful too of a good production. The extreme reactions before something has been seen is something I find hard to fathom though I occassionally find myself holding strong ones once I see material. For instance I went from enthusiastic about the new Doctor Who, David Tennant, to being very negative when seeing him in action despite liking the actor very much. The same could happen in reverse with Toby Stephens and I'm prepared to give him a chance to impress.

That said, I shall be keeping a sneer-count.

pennyforyourdreams said...

Aidan: Hee: a sneer-count

Could we set up a real time counter that pings every time it detects a curled lip?

Any way, thinking about an ideal Rochester: I think Ken Stott would be great (getting a little old now), but he's a marvellous actor and definitely not a pretty boy, or how about Greg Hicks? (but again, getting on a bit).

Aidan Brack said...

A ping counter would be fantastic. I personally plan on video-capturing every sneer in agonising detail.

Stott would have been good but has the wrong accent. I don't know Hicks so can't comment on him. Much to my shame I simply can't think of anyone who would be appropriate for the role who hasn't already been suggested. David Morrissey (the guy from Blackpool, not Men Behaving Badly) could have been good though. :)

madpercolator said...

Perdon my late input on this matter - I've only just come across this wonderful blog this morning.

Toby Stephens - son of Maggie (Jean Brodie) Smith and all around competent actor as proven by his swooning but not buffoonish work in "Twelfth Night." I'm excited he gets a chance at the role - to try and make amends for the junk William Hurt did with it in the Zefferelli pic of a few years ago.

I barely remember Dalton's Rochester, as I was too amazed by the work of Zelah Clarke (Jane), and puzzled ever after by where she came from and where she went following the production. At any rate, I consider the Clarke/Dalton Jane Eyre to be the most comprehensive and well done of the screen adaptations, and FERVENTLY WISH the BBC/PBS would work on producing the first palatable screen version of Wuthering Heights (all attempts have been tragically, laughably bad) - in serial form - somethig alnog the lines and quality of the BBC "Bleak House" that so recently rocked my television set.

Aidan Brack said...

madper - The 70s version of Wuthering Heights isn't terrible if a little clunking budget-wise.

As for Hurt, I think sometimes it's easy to be critical of his performance but he does a good job of bringing the character in the script to life. As with Colin Clive, I feel that the performance is a good performance but it's not a great representation of the Mr. Rochester of the book.

Brontëana said...

to pennyforyourdreams:

Now I'm imagining a ping counter for all of those kisses in the 1973 version... or half smiles! pingpingping! :D

Brontëana said...

to madpercolator:

Welcome to the (still very active) discussion!

I think I am one of the few who were not impressed by Zelah Clark's performance. She's not a bad actress by far, although I did not see anything particularly brilliant about her in the role.

Ah, William Hurt. The Rochester everyone loves to hate. I'm convinced that he didn't have a chance of portraying more than the lightest shades of Rochester's character. The film was clearly not about his struggle or his passion, but about Jane's strength of character. Whether that was carried well or not, I cannot say. The film was my introduction to the book, and I'm not ready yet to see it as a disaster.

I will share the sentiment, however, that damage control needs to be done- the 1997 version was awful in almost every respect. I hope we can move on and forget the pain. ;)

to Aidan brack as well:

I agree with madpercolator: the 1970s WH was hilariously bad (if you mean the one with Dalton). I literally laugh at many scenes- and play them back even. Some of it was done very well, the atmosphere was very good. But the scene where H chases the women out of the Grange (these same women who, after running away screaming, run TOWARDS him screaming, and then away again), leaping over a fence and kissing Isabella... so funny. I can't sit through it without laughing.

Aidan Brack said...

Bronteana - sorry, I wasn't clear: I was talking about the 1978 BBC mini-series recently released on DVD. The first part is a little clunking but it's a pretty good adaptation. :)

pennyforyourdreams said...

...the scene where H chases the women out of the Grange (these same women who, after running away screaming, run TOWARDS him screaming, and then away again), leaping over a fence and kissing Isabella... so funny.

I'm laughing just reading about it!

I think we ought to look into the ping counter with a degree of seriousness, a whole new way of assessing costume drama is just around the corner.

Aidan Brack said...

When looking at Victorian-set drama the "false moustache count" can also be a satisfying marker of quality.

pennyforyourdreams said...

I tend to derive a lot of pleasure from the patently false sideburns myself; kudos to anyone who actually managed to grow his or in deed her own :D