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A&E's `Jane Eyre' is fabulous

Ciaran Hinds certainly had plenty of material to turn to if he wanted to research his role of Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre." After all, there have been at least nine previous theatrical and television films based on Charlotte Bronte's novel.

But Hinds decided he didn't want to see any of them.

"When I was asked to do this, the (Franco) Zefferelli version - with Bill Hurt - had just come out. And, also, there was a rerun on television of the great Orson Welles one," Hinds said. "And, while I was very tempted to have a look at both and plagiarize what I could, I decided it would probably work against me. So I didn't see them at all."

(The new 2 1/2-hour version of "Jane Eyre" - a British-American co-production - will premiere tonight at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E.)

Not only didn't he see the movies, but he shied away from the book as well.

"Samantha Morton, who's playing Jane Eyre, she read it backwards, frontwards and sideways. And informed me that I should be reading it backwards, frontwards and sideways," Hinds said.

But not only was the BBC/A&E co-production of "Jane Eyre" shot rather quickly (5 1/2 weeks) - which didn't leave much time for reading - but Hinds wasn't inclined toward reading it, anyway. He pointed out that, invariably, the book is different from the screenplay, and has a different emphasis.

Hinds was, instead, interested in the way Key Mellor wrote the screen-play.

"It is her version," he said. "And she wanted, I think, to make Jane a very strong, independent lady. . . . She wanted that idea of a young, modern woman being able to put Jane Eyre, and what she stood for with her independence and strength, to play through that screenplay."

The end result is nothing short of great - you could easily argue that this version is superior to the 1944 Welles-Joan Fontaine version, which has generally been accepted as the best of the lot.

The story is, of course, pretty much the same. Young Jane Eyre endures a cruel, hard childhood but grows up to be a strong, confident young woman. She accepts a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall, an English country estate owned by Mr. Edward Rochester, a forbidding, arrogant and secretive man.

Despite their age difference, the two fall in love. But as they stand at the altar ready to become man and wife, Rochester's secret is revealed, sending Jane fleeing from Thornfield.

It's a timeless love story, as enthralling now as it was when Charlotte Bronte's book was published 150 years ago - Oct. 16, 1847. Even if you know the answer to the mystery that Rochester is hiding, you'll still feel the tension and suspense build.

This British-American co-production is wonderfully written, directed and acted and handsomely produced. (It was filmed in Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, England.)

Hinds, who is best known in this country for his roles in the film "Persuasion" and the recent BBC/A&E version of "Ivanhoe," is great in "Jane Eyre." His version of Mr. Rochester isn't exactly what viewers might expect, but it is the one that he and director Robert Young agreed upon.

(Young cast Hinds before he met him, based on a radio version of "Jane Eyre" that the actor did about five years ago.)

"I think his pitch on Rochester was that he was a particularly passionate man," Hinds said. "Sometimes, he played in a quiet, melancolic way. But his version - it wasn't as operatic, but he wanted it very passionate. The passion is held in for a long time. But whenever it came out, it was overwhelming."

And Morton's portrayal of Jane Eyre is all the more amazing because she's actually the right age to play the role.

"Samantha's only 19, which is quite extraordinary," Hinds said. "Usually when somebody plays Jane Eyre, they're maybe in their mid- to late-20s. They have the experience to do it, but she was only 19!"

This version of "Jane Eyre" is definitely a keeper. A&E is already marketing the video, but you can make your own copy tonight just by setting your VCR.