Ranking Rochesters: Best Rochesters in Jane Eyre Adaptations

Since I left my original blog years ago, many things have changed while some things have remained the same. My love for Rochester and the many iterations of him in TV and film throughout history is unalterable, which is why I couldn't wait even a week to publish this post after just having finished ranking the Jane Eyre adaptations. What has changed, however, is the technology at my disposal that I didn't have in 2011--namely the innovation of the gif. Gifs have become one of the best fandom tools, and in cooking them up for this blog post I can easily see why. It was fun spotlight small, sometimes underrated looks and moments from different performances. Below are my rankings of the best and worst portrayals of Jane Eyre's Edward Rochester, complete with gifs of some of my favorite moments from each one. 

12. Colin Clive, Jane Eyre 1934

 "You are a string little thing, aren't you? But charming." 

"You are a string little thing, aren't you? But charming." 

The poor 1934 adaptation is doomed to bringing up the rear in nearly every ranking. Clive just isn't Rochester, partly because he wasn't written to be him and partly because he doesn't attempt to behave like him. The above gif was hilarious, but cute. 

11. Patrick Macnee, Jane Eyre 1957 

 Awkward.

Awkward.

Rochester may be many things--over-sentimental, mysterious, manipulative and even hypocritical--but he isn't a lusty drunk. Macnee plays Rochester like a pervy uncle with a complete disregard for personal space. The way he performs the character, I honestly feel bad for Jane. Why isn't the actress portraying her more uncomfortable?

 

10. Kevin McCarthy, Jane Eyre 1952

                                                                   "As we are!"

                                                                  "As we are!"

The 1952 might have been a decent American TV adaptation had McCarthy even slightly represented the Rochester from the text. McCarthy's Rochester isn't gloomy and haunted in the least. In fact, he's charming, approachable, and nice from the beginning. He's certainly the most optimistic and exuberant Rochester, as seen above. Is McCarthy even in character?

9. Charlton Heston, Jane Eyre 1949 

                                                          "Goodnight, Miss Eyre." 

                                                         "Goodnight, Miss Eyre." 

Positive: Despite all the pitfalls and low production values of this adaptation, Charlton Heston at least seems familiar with the source material. Heston is the first actor to play Rochester as accurately abrupt, sarcastic, and wholly unconcerned with manners in his first conversation with Jane. The 1949 Rochester cares nothing for propriety. He pursues what captures his interest, and that is probing and coaxing a meek (in this adaptation, at least) Jane Eyre out of her reserved shell. 

Negative: None of the characters in this American TV adaptation even try for a British accent. The writing also wasn't faithful enough to make for a truly accurate Rochester. Cheesy TV lines and melodramatic breakneck kisses pepper the adaptation, making it difficult to allow that Heston is trying his best and doing an admirable job given the circumstances. 

8. George C. Scott, Jane Eyre 1970 

                                                       "What the devil do you think you're doing..."

Positive: Despite it's low ranking, this adaptation and its Rochester have some touching moments that I could watch forever. As I've mentioned before, Scott's performance during the leaving scene is particularly heartrending. His Rochester moves through all the reasons why Jane can and should stay with him, dares her to leave, and when she actually does, calls her back longingly, caresses her face, and asks her to wait. Scott brings a curmudgeonly surliness to his portrayal of Rochester. Jane slowly finds her way into his heart, creating a touching romance rooted in a kind of paternal tenderness and devotion. Scott's is different from most portrayals and maybe not so loaded with erotic passion, but it is incredibly sweet. 

Negative: Scott's Rochester is tender and devoted, but is he Rochester? When it comes down to it, Scott never fully immerses himself in the character. As much as we love him, most Jane Eyre fans know that Rochester can get messy, ugly, even a little disconcerting. In short, he has real character flaws that should make an impression on the reader/viewer. Scott gets lost in the shuffle of Rochester performances because he plays the character too safe to make a lasting impact. 

7. William Hurt, Jane Eyre 1996 

                                                                                  "At least--shake hands." 

                                                                                 "At least--shake hands." 

Positive: Hurt's take on Rochester reminds the viewer that Rochester has to learn how to love again after having spent so much time alone and aloof. Both Hurt and Gainsbourg play their characters as 'otherworldly' in the sense that they've become accustomed to living with their own thoughts. In Jane, Hurt's Rochester has found someone to share his with. We see Rochester unburdening himself naturally, almost without thinking, and we can feel the relief it gives him. When Hurt's Rochester lays his face against Gainsbourg's during the proposal, it isn't the explosive moment that many readers imagine and other actors choose to portray. Rather, it is a moment of healing where both characters finally allow themselves to connect after years of solitude. 

Negative: I love William Hurt as an actor, so it was disappointing to be underwhelmed by his performance of Rochester. At its best, and with the right interpretive eye, Hurt's performance is the 'positive' above. At its worst, it's too sedate and one-dimensional to be truly faithful. While Hurt--and the 1996 adaptation as a whole--does a great job of portraying the subtextual themes of loneliness and connection, he doesn't get at the more obvious facets of Rochester--his vigor, his physicality, his unrestrained emotionality--that are clearly spelled out and that any puritan and fan of the book should be able to expect. This may be in part because Hurt doesn't physically fit the billing of the dark, broad shouldered master of Thornfield with large, black, and expressive eyes. 

6. Ciaran Hinds, Jane Eyre 1997

                                                                                   "Jane. Look at me." 

                                                                                  "Jane. Look at me." 

Positive: Unlike Scott and Hurt, viewers could never accuse Hinds of not pushing the boundaries. Hinds really commits himself to portraying a fierce and deeply-flawed Rochester whose character deficiencies are not just things of the past, but still very present concerns. He exhibits Rochester's "state of proud independence" that disdains "every part but that of the giver and protector," and the viewer is able to see those flaws broken down by the end of the adaptation when, unable to give Jane any of the things he formerly valued as expressions of love, all he can do is cry in her arms and bare his vulnerabilities. Additionally, though Hinds' Rochester spends most his time scowling and sulking (a problem addressed below), he also shows a great deal of joy and exuberance, particularly in the scenes following the proposal and before the failed wedding. His smile is so rare that it feels more special when we see it. 

Negative: I'm not entirely sure whether I should have ranked Hinds ahead of Hurt. It's difficult to compare the two because their sins in portraying the character are exact opposites of the other. Where Hurt is too sedate and not expressive enough, Hinds' Rochester at his worst is a loose canon, a screamer, and a total jerk. Hinds' portrayal is perhaps the most mixed bag. His aggressiveness either works well or not at all. Unfortunately the latter is often the case, particularly in the leaving scene where he just screams at Jane repeatedly until she makes it to the carriage. 

5. Orson Welles, Jane Eyre 1943

 "I was to be aided, and by that hand: and aided I was. And then later that evening--do you remember Jane? Say you remember."                   

"I was to be aided, and by that hand: and aided I was. And then later that evening--do you remember Jane? Say you remember."                   

Positive: Orson Welles has a lot going for him, turning in arguably the most underrated performance of Rochester. For one, he is perhaps the most accurate physical representation of the character. He exhibits not only the basic Rochester 'specs'--dark, sparkling eyes, stormy brow, features far from conventionally handsome--but also the character's commanding physical presence. Welles speaks and moves with that vigor, informality, and slight self-importance Brontë ascribes to Rochester. While parts of his performance (the proposal scene in particular) have the usual melodramatic stylistics of any 40s film, it usually works for the character and the gothic tone of the adaptation as a whole. Even in such a dramatic film, Welles produces an incredibly subtle and beautifully-performed leaving scene. The gentleness of his voice and expressions in that moment takes my breath away, especially after the power and intensity of his earlier scenes. 

Negative: It is a 40s Hollywood film, and Welles is Welles, meaning there is a clear dose of proto-film noir melodrama in his performance that likely won't sit well with viewers looking for fresh and fluid realism. Due to the cinematic context and constraints of the genre, Welles' portrayal of Rochester might strike younger viewers as outdated, overdone, and lacking in romanticism. And even I, with all my love for vintage film and its methods of study, would agree. Welles does something great within a certain context, but he is not a Rochester that can define the character for all time.

4. Toby Stephens, Jane Eyre 2006

                                                                         "Then I will say: don't go, Jane." 

                                                                        "Then I will say: don't go, Jane." 

Positive: Finally, a Rochester viewers could believe flew through Europe bedding mistresses left and right. Stephens brings a sexiness and sensuality to the role of Rochester that no other actor does, and it's refreshing and needed. Once again, this isn't simply the specs and the fact that Stephens is oddly gorgeous even with his muttonchops and extensions, but how he strategically portrays the character's physicality and charisma through his speech and movement. In an interview for the miniseries, Stephens spoke a lot about Rochester's (and Jane's) sexuality and how it influences the intimacy between the characters. His attention to that in his approach to the character reminds viewers and readers just how 'scandalous' Jane Eyre was for a victorian novel. Like it or not, Jane knows that Rochester has the tools to be sexually persuasive, and he's willing to use them ("Do you mean it now? And now?"). But none of this is to say that Stephens purely sexualizes the character and little else. His Rochester connects to Jane on a soul level (as he continually reiterates), and his relationship with her teaches him emotional and spiritual intimacy after years of defining relationships physically. 

Negative: I spoke about this in my adaptations rankings, but despite the great job Stephens does highlighting a less-emphasized aspect of the character, he doesn't fully exhibit or inhabit the more evident, traditional facets of Rochester that readers have come to expect. After his early conversations with Jane, Stephens' Rochester ceases to be fully mercurial, eccentric, and off-putting. In the book, there are moments where we ask ourselves (alongside Jane) about Rochester, "What is he doing here? What does he mean by this?? What is he about?!" He just doesn't make sense sometimes! Stephens doesn't fully play that strangeness or "curious, designing mind."

3. Michael Jayston, Jane Eyre 1973 

 "You have a curious, designing mind, Mr. Rochester."                                                                                 "Matched to yours, you said so." 

"You have a curious, designing mind, Mr. Rochester."                                                                                 "Matched to yours, you said so." 

Positive: "Yet there was so much unconscious pride in his port; so much ease in his demeanour; such a look of complete indifference to his own external appearance; so haughty a reliance on the power of other qualities...to atone for the lack of mere personal attractiveness." Jayston's performance truly embodies Jane's above description. Jayston/Rochester is not a handsome man. What you see is what you get, and yet something about that mischievous smile, his cutting sarcasm, his quirkiness, and the complete confidence with which he carries himself makes him magnetic and engaging. Jayston's Rochester is also weird. At first, that was what I disliked about him, but now I appreciate that it's exactly what makes him so faithful to the Rochester of the novel--he bucks tradition and propriety, speaks using dramatic and enigmatical language, dresses in drag to extort confessions from the woman he loves. What Jane Eyre fans don't care to admit is that Rochester is incredibly contradictory. He'd rather pretend to court someone else, dress up as a woman, and threaten to send Jane to Ireland get a reaction from her than simply declare himself. And yet, he loves Jane. While other actors and adaptations shy away from that seeming paradox, Jayston pulls it off and makes us believe it. He may not be the smoldering, romantic gothic hero we'd prefer to watch, but he's true.

Negative: As I've mentioned before, Jayston is at his best mostly pre-proposal when he gets to show off Rochester's eccentricity and mischief-making. He is good at being relaxed, odd, and flirtatious. He is not as good at being urgent and passionate. Jayston's proposal, leaving, and reunion scene performances are good--parts of them are even incredibly touching--but they aren't powerful or climactic. When it's time for Rochester to move from being the puzzling and bizarre suitor to the raw, desperate, and broken lover of the latter scenes, he isn't as convincing.

2. Michael Fassbender, Jane Eyre 2011 

 "I pledge you my honor, my fidelity, my love 'til death do us part."                                                                           "What of truth?" 

"I pledge you my honor, my fidelity, my love 'til death do us part."                                                                           "What of truth?" 

Positive: One of my favorite moments of Fassbender's in Jane Eyre is not one of the romantic scenes we usually use to define Rochester, but the scene where he sits gloomily (dare I say morosely?) at the piano playing an augmented fourth. Mrs. Fairfax comes forward with his tea and he responds with a terse and spoiled, "Keep it!" Then he gives this 'look' that communicates a vast array of emotions in just a few seconds--weariness, frustration, woe, pain. What I like most about Fassbender's Rochester is that he is properly miserable, and it feels real. He is suffering, and the audience, like Jane in the novel, grieves for him without really knowing why. His acerbic wit is a front for his hurt, but as the film progresses we see other layers of him revealed--his genuine smile, his odd charm, his sensitivity. He, like Stephens in the 2006, adds a certain kind of sexiness to the role, but Fassbender's Rochester has less of the upper hand. He and Jane are clearly attracted to each other, but she's too good at resisting him, creating this cute dynamic where Rochester for once is the dazzled, infatuated pursuant. Finally: Gawd, what a leaving scene! 

Negative: As with the 2011 adaptation in general, a lot of the negatives come down to lack of time, but that's not really a critique is it? When it comes to acting the unspoken details of Rochester, few can match Fassbender. His weakness is Rochester's romantic speaking parts. Compared to the rest of his performance, his delivery of the best lines from the book in the fire and proposal scenes isn't as packed with the same commitment and depth of feeling. The iconic lines--"you rare unearthly thing," "I must have you for my own," "that expression did not strike delight in my very inmost heart"--seem to overpower him, almost as if he knows their magnitude and approaches them timidly.   

1. Timothy Dalton, Jane Eyre 1983

 "To live, for me, Jane, is to stand on a crater-crust that may crack and spew fire any day. Now you look puzzled!" 

"To live, for me, Jane, is to stand on a crater-crust that may crack and spew fire any day. Now you look puzzled!" 

Positive: Timothy Dalton is a force, delivering the most consistently good scenes as Rochester. Whereas Jayston and Fassbender peter out a bit when it comes to performing the 'hallmark' scenes between Jane and Rochester--the fire, the proposal, Jane's departure, and the reunion--those passion-packed moments are Dalton's bread and butter, where he really becomes Rochester. In my rankings of those scenes, the 1983 is consistently among the best because of his stellar performances. Dalton is another powerful physical presence, towering above Clarke's Jane and sporting a bass voice that carries and conveys Rochester's commanding tone and even his stormy temper. But Dalton also knows how to be earnest and soft, and those moments are just as believable. No matter what Rochester's mood, Dalton infuses it with conviction. The audience buys his Rochester in all his forms--his anger, his tenderness, his sadness, his happiness and his conflict. We see why Rochester is intrigued that Jane holds up so well under his gaze and questioning and even matches him back. He's so piercing, so intense, so direct about what he feels that most people don't know what to do with him. In light of Dalton's performance, it makes sense that Rochester asks, "You're afraid of me?" 

Negative: Once again, for a younger or more modern audience, Dalton could also be a bit 'much.' He doesn't overact as much as Orson Welles, but in his commitment to that conviction I mentioned above, there are moments where we wish he could dial it back just a bit. He puts everything on the table all the time, leaving little nuance for the audience to decipher, particularly when he portrays more volatile emotions. Also, this gif is perfection. Gosh, he's hot! That would be an obvious positive were it not for the fact that Rochester has no business looking that cute.