The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: May, 2012

On Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 version of Jane Eyre is a pretty good adaptation, and Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of the central character has been generally well-received. One thing that struck me about Wasikowska was her physical resemblance to representations of Charlotte Bronte herself. Wasikowska was wearing a wig for the shooting, one which accentuated the facial similarities.

An attempt is being made here to elide the distance between the author Charlotte Bronte and her heroine Jane Eyre. Why should this be the case? Perhaps because it lends a sense of realism to the plot, implying that Jane Eyre provides an attainable model of romance for its audience. Of course, Charlotte Bronte never had any relationship remotely analogous to Jane’s with Rochester; for Bronte’s biographer Lyndall Gordon:

[Jane Eyre] is a creative truth: not woman as she is, but as she might be. (169)

At this distance in time, however, Bronte can be safely romanticized, and so Jane can become more than “a creative truth”. One is reminded of the film Becoming Jane, which determinedly mythologized Jane Austen’s life till it approximated that of one of her heroines. It’s not enough that Jane Austen created Elizabeth Bennett, the modern audience wants the comfort of knowing that she more or less was Elizabeth Bennett, as well. And Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre works by suggesting that Jane Eyre was Charlotte Bronte, and Charlotte Bronte was Jane Eyre: this could really happen then!

Rather than drawing its intensity from the frustration and isolation of its author, it is more pleasant to believe Jane’s tale had some relation to reality. Just because Bronte could write Jane Eyre, doesn’t mean she could have lived it. Rather the contrary. But it is part of the purpose of wish-fulfilment served in modern culture by stories like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice to believe that  they can be read autobiographically.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond, 1850.


Lynall Gordon, Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, London, Virago, 2008.

The Various Deaths of Nancy in Oliver Twist Adaptations 1922 to 2007

This blog earlier discussed the opening storm scene in David Lean’s classic adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948) and the tendency of later adapters to copy Lean’s approach. Another very important scene from Lean’s film which has been directly influential is that of Sikes’ murder of Nancy, a climactic episode occuring towards the end of the narrative. Lean famously cuts away from Sikes and Nancy just at the moment he is about to cudgel her to death, and focusses on Sikes’ dog Bull’s-Eye, who responds to the violence by racing to the door and furiously scrabbling to get out. Lean himself felt:

I am not too mad about violence on the screen […] I think violence is much more frightening if you leave it to the viewer to imagine. […] To do the death of Nancy as described – Bill Sikes hitting her on the head – would be disgusting (Brownlow 241).

So Lean made the highly effective substitution of the frantic dog for the act of violence itself, and the result has been highly acclaimed. According to Lean’s biographer, Gene D. Phillips, it is “one of the outstanding examples of horror induced by indirection in all cinema” (134). Less known, in fact I’ve never yet seen it pointed out, is that this development was not entirely novel to Lean’s film, as the 1922 version of Oliver Twist starring Jackie Coogan included a fleeting shot of Bull’s-Eye  as the murder takes place – again he’s scrabbling at a door, but he seems to be trying to get in, rather than out as in Lean’s film, although it’s hard to be sure. Lean took this shot and made it the centrepiece of his great scene.

Bull’s-Eye scrabbles for the door as Nancy dies in Lean’s Oliver Twist

Dickens himself seems to forget about Bull’s-Eye during this scene in Oliver Twist. A few pages later, though, we are told that on cleaning up the murder-scene, Sikes leaves, “dragging the dog with him” (Chapter XLVIII), so apparently Bull’s-Eye was present at the death.

Later serials have almost all taken their cue from Lean to the extent of showing the dog’s reaction to the murder. Unlike Lean, however, they have also shown the murder itself, and the voyeuristic lingering on the moment of violence has increased over time.

In the musical Oliver! we don’t see much, Sikes and Nancy are hidden behind a set of steps, all that is visible are Sikes’ upper body and his staff as it descends in a striking motion on the unseen Nancy. There’s also a shot of Bull’s-Eye, just standing there, watching without reaction; like Lean’s dog, he’s white with a black patch over one eye.

Clive Donner’s 1982 Oliver Twist was the first to make real voyeuristic capital of the murder. In this adaptation, Tim Curry is a particularly unpleasant Sikes, not only irascible and violent, but sleazy and leering. Here, Sikes beats Nancy (Cherie Lunghi) to the floor, then retreats as she rises to her knees, saying “I can’t see, Bill” and begins to grope around looking for him. She crawls to him, and embraces him, still on her knees, pleading with him to spare her life. There’s a close-up of Bill’s face as he prepares for the coup de grace, lifting up a flaming cudgel (he’s picked it up from the fire); his eyes are blank and rather than overcome by rage, he seems to be drawing out the moment. Then a close-up of Nancy’s blindly staring face, and back to Bill. He lifts the cudgel so slowly it seems to be almost ritualistic, then brings it down with great force. The camera is on Bill’s face as he commits the deed. Just afterwards, his expression seems almost ecstatic, before he emits an anguished howl. I don’t think this scene works characterologically, and its motivation seems more one of fetishized violence.

Clive Donner’s 1982 TV movie: Sikes (Tim Curry) lifts his flaming cudgel, very slowly, in preparation to kill Nancy

Bull’s-Eye is also shown scrabbling at the door in Donner’s evocation of the scene; but in a later shot, just before the murderous blow is dealt, he is shown baring his teeth, just as Sikes did in the immediately previous shot – obviously a deliberate parallel by the director to emphasize Sikes’ bestiality. Bull’s-Eye is here a terrier-type dog, rather than the usual bull dog.

The 1985 BBC serial of Oliver Twist, directed by Gareth Walsh, takes a similar approach to Donner with regard to Nancy’ s murder. Like Donner, Walsh lets the scene take place without non-diegetic sound, and for much of it in complete silence. It’s a long scene, building inexorably towards Sikes’ outbreak of brutality. The director seems to be relying on his audiences anticipation – when is he going to do it? – given that the outcome is so well known. Here, Sikes strikes when Nancy is in his arms, Sikes having lowered the gun when she said “No, they’ll hear it”, which leads her to think he’s changed his mind. But as she lies in his arms, facing the floor, he raises the gun over her head and brings it down very heavily, then we see him bringing it down on her as she lies on the ground – bringing it down from a great height and with extreme violence. For the first time, Bull’s-Eye doesn’t appear in the scene.

Michael Attwell as Sikes in the 1985 Twist, cudgeling Nancy’s body with extreme force (Apologies for the terrible picture quality).


The 1982 and 1985 scenes are very similar. I find them problematical in that by drawing out the scene and slowing everything down, it’s harder to fit it into Sikes’ character, which is impetuously violent. Lean’s Sikes dispatches Nancy quickly, obviously in the throes of a great passion.  Walsh’s and Donner’s Sikes are more calculating in their approach, seeming in control and postponing the murder for no apparent reason.

The 1999 Alan Bleasdale-scripted serial for ITV also went for the maximalist approach. This long scene resembles Donner’s by having Nancy rise after the first blows, blood streaming from her face, and plead with Bill to “Have mercy”, before being downed again. This scene has a lot of shots of Nancy’s bloodied face. And we have our first black Bull’s-Eye (colour-blind casting?), sitting under the bed, not reacting to the violence.

The death of Nancy has been twice rendered on screen so far in the 2000s. Roman Polanski’s 2005 adaptation of Oliver Twist has a shortish murder scene, fairly restrained. Bull’s-Eye stands barking as Sikes’ blows fall. We see Sikes striking out, but Nancy is invisible in the shadows in the room. The 2007 BBC series (dir. Coky Giedroyc) features the first mixed-race Nancy, and, more to this post’s purpose, she is the first Nancy who is not in bed when when Sikes arrives home in the murder scene. She’s sitting up, and knows immediately by his demeanour that he knows of her meeting with Mr Brownlow. She begins to plead, but he grabs her by the hair and after a short hesitation beats her with his stick. It’s another short one, with an odd use of Bull’s-Eye, who sits quietly facing away from Sikes and towards the door as the murder takes place. In both the two most recent OTs, the dog has the classic Bull’s-Eye aesthetic of white with a black patch.

Bull’s-Eye in the 2007 BBC serial turns away from the murder, sitting quietly by the door.

Leanne Rowe as Nancy in Roman Polanski’s 2005 film.

There has been a definite arc in Nancy murders, from Lean’s classy indirection to the increasing and somewhat sadistic violence  in the 80s and 90s and then a move away from that into the more neutral stagings in the more recent ones. The Nancy murder scene has less importance in the more recent (post-2000) adaptations. The 2007 serial placed more emphasis on Bill in the aftermath, as he seems unable to take in what he’s done, talking to Nancy’s corpse as if he thinks her still alive. I’m not here going to try and go into why this change in approaches to the scene has taken place, merely point out that it has. As for Bull’s-Eye, his presence and his appearance shows (as the storm scene discussed before did also) the pervasive influence of Lean’s adaptation on his successors. Bull’s-Eye has been used in all sorts of ways to heighten the effect of the murder scene, a scene which has always been known as one of Dickens’ most powerful; in fact, the 1897 short, The Death of Nancy Sykes, is the oldest known Dickens adaptation, and each adapter since has brought their own vision to create new ways of staging this immortal scene.

Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. Faber, 1997.

Phillips, Gene D. Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean. University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Review of The Monk (Dominik Moll, 2011)

The Empire review of Dominik Moll’s new film The Monk described the author of the 1796 source novel, Matthew Lewis, as the “father of torture porn”, which is perhaps not without a certain logic. But Lewis’ novel has a manic energy all of its own, a gleefully nihilistic taboo-smashing aesthetic which sets it apart from all competitors. Its lascivious fascination with the corruption/ exploitation of innocence is Sadean, but its boisterousness and irreverance lift it far above. Could such an energy be once again harnessed by a 21st century French director, working in a milieu where the taboos Lewis took such pleasure in demolishing have lost much of their potency?

Reviews of The Monk have been unenthusiastic. The aforementioned Empire review found it solid but “there’s a spark missing”, and Sight and Sound was similarly respectful but unengaged, finding that the old gothic tropes weren’t given enough of a novel twist to make this a really worthwhile film. And it’s true, they’re not: this is quite a classically gothic film (if you’ll pardon the oxymoron) –  gargoyles, ravens, etc. – and perhaps the best that can be said of it is that it’s the sort of film you’ll like if you like that sort of film. It’s beautiful looking, making good use of the medieval Spanish towns in which it was shot, and heavily reliant on scenes shot in either dark shadows or scorching Spanish sunlight. Vincent Cassel is well cast as Ambrosio, the monk of the title: he can pull off ascetic and monkish while also looking convincing as a man tortured by lusts of the flesh. Empire mentioned that Deborah Francois “isn’t quite devastatingly sexy enough” as a succubus – perhaps true, but it’s not a major flaw as her character isn’t given that much screen time in this adaptation, and Ambroso’s lust for her is played down, more space being given to the lust he develops for  Antonia , in which role Josephine Japy is well cast. In any case, the hallucinogenic love sequence between Ambrosio and Francois’ Valerio is memorable.

The one problem real problem with Moll’s film is the pacing in the latter stages. The denouement was rushed and the closing scene was underwhelming and slightly confusing. Was Moll trying to bring in an element of redemption for Ambrosio’s character? I couldn’t help recall the unhinged relish with which Lewis punishes his anti-hero, and would have liked to have seen some of that bite here. But whether Moll wants to recreate Lewis’s tone or go for something else,  I think the latter part is in dire need of a re-edit. Anti-climax aside, this is a well-made and entirely diverting film, one which has perhaps been too harshly judged by reviewers, but which I can well imagine will develop a cult following and have a long shelf-life.

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