There isn't anything glaringly wrong with Franco Zeffirelli's film version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Indeed, quite a few things are right on the money.
Charlotte Gainsbourg's soulfully austere performance in the title role is affecting and fearlessly unglamorous. (Several characters, including Jane herself, describe the heroine as "plain," and neither Gainsbourg nor Zeffirelli have done anything that might contradict this harsh judgment.) William Hurt gives a sly and subtly self-mocking performance as Rochester, the brooding hunk whose dark past threatens to overshadow his chances for future happiness. The supporting roles are well cast, the production is handsomely mounted and the period detail is thoroughly persuasive.
Still, even with all this going for it, the film is ultimately unsatisfying. Despite the best efforts of the director, screenwriters and cast, this Jane Eyre comes off as little more than a good try. It's respectful and purposeful, but it's also staid and uninspired. Even the scenes that would seem to provide the ingredients for sure-fire, full-blown gothic melodrama seem underheated. It's almost as though Zeffirelli made this gray and chilly movie as a kind of penance for the lushly flamboyant renderings of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew) with which he launched his filmmaking career in the 1960s. Compared to those exuberantly excessive entertainments, Jane Eyre appears to be the work of a director who wants us to knuckle down and eat our vegetables.
The film might even pass muster with the stern and censorious Mr. Brocklehurst (John Wood), headmaster of the Lowood charity school where, in the opening scenes, young Jane is shipped off by her selfish aunt. Mrs. Reed (Fiona Shaw) wants her bothersomely headstrong niece "to be brought up in a manner befitting her prospects" and, more important, "to be kept humble." Mr. Brocklehurst, perhaps the most demanding disciplinarian this side of Charles Dickens' Wackford Squeers, is just the man to provide such a service.
Life at Lowood is a long and dreary sentence for Jane (played as a child by Oscar-winner Anna Paquin of The Piano). Mr. Brocklehurst and his equally prim assistant (Geraldine Chaplin) are merciless taskmasters. And even when Jane manages to find a friend among her classmates, her happiness is short-lived. (So, alas, is the friend.) Even so, despite all the attempts to break her spirit, Jane remains strong-willed and self-possessed. It's a good thing, because she needs all the fortitude she can manage when, as an adult played by Gainsbourg, she landsa job as governess at Thornfield Hall.
After so many bleak years at Lowood, Jane views Thornfield -- at first -- as a kind of paradise. Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright), the housekeeper who hires her, treats Jane with a respectful kindness that is just short of maternal, and Adele (Josephine Serre), the child Jane is charged with educating, is spirited but sweet-tempered.
Then there's Mr. Rochester, who literally gallops into Jane's life one winter morning. Rochester is lord and master of Thornfield, though he's usually away on business, as well as Adele's guardian. Originally, he confides to Jane, he thought he had fathered the girl. But even after he learned otherwise, he continued to support her. Rochester takes great pride in never shirking his responsibilities. It's a character trait that inevitably brings him -- and Jane -- considerable grief.
Unlike Orson Welles and George C. Scott, actors who played more flamboyantly ominous Rochesters in earlier film versions of the novel, Hurt makes Rochester a quirky neurotic who's frequently bemused by his own melancholy. Hurt brings a slightly ironic twist to many lines, conveying the idea that Rochester views himself as more ridiculous than tragic. And yet, Hurt also manages to convincingly convey the guilt and pain that torment his character. "I once had a heart of tender feelings," he says at one point, "but fortune has knocked me about. Now I am as hard and tough as an India rubber ball." As Hurt says this, the expression on his face is one of hurt laced with amazement, as though Rochester cannot quite believe he is admitting such a thing -- to Jane, to himself -- out loud.
As Jane, Gainsbourg does an admirable job of expressing her character's inner conflict between burning passion and indoctrinated repression. She plays Jane as an intelligent and observant woman who's courageous enough to maintain her independence, but who isn't quite far enough ahead of her time to fully appreciate her own worth. Thanks to the sort of fairy-tale contrivance that 19th-century novelists liked to provide their heroines, Jane is ultimately allowed the opportunity to do whatever she wants. Her decision to follow her heart is, in this context, not so much an old-fashioned romantic convention as a carefully reasoned, freewill choice to be happy. In this, Jane doesn't merely enjoy a happy-ever-after ending -- she also earns our respect.
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The trouble is, Jane Eyre itself isn't much more than respectable. The spark that's needed to transform prose into poetry, or a faithful translation into an emotional experience, simply isn't there.
In addition to those already mentioned, all of whom are splendid, the supporting players include Billie Whitelaw as a maid who knows everything about Rochester's family secrets, and Elle Macpherson as an eligible young lady whose surface beauty is no match for Jane's radiant soul. Maria Schneider pops up near the end, looking a great deal more haggard than she did back when Marlon Brando buttered her buns in Last Tango in Paris. More than that, I cannot say. To reveal what she does, or what role she plays, would spoil the surprise.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. With William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joan Plowright and Anna Paquin.