Review by Steve Rhodes|
3 stars out of 4
You have all been to movies that were dogs, but which,
nevertheless, contain one or two outstanding performances. Well,
tonight I got to see one of those rare examples of the reverse! The
great director Franco Zeffirelli, who created the best movie production
of Shakespeare in my lifetime, ROMEO AND JULIET (1968), has turned his
tremendous creative genius and crafted a wonderful new JANE EYRE.
The substantial flaw that prevents this film from greatness is
that Zeffirelli made one terrible casting choice in Charlotte
Gainsbourg to play Jane Eyre. This is compounded further by William
Hurt approaching his role as the other lead, Edward Rochester, with a
cerebral and ethereal approach that lacks the passion and liveliness of
past actors (Orson Wells, George C. Scott, and Timothy Dalton) who
successfully brought this role to the screen. Even with problems with
the leads, the majesty of the film and wonderful story of the novel (by
Charlotte Bronte with screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Franco
Zeffirelli) shine through.
The sad tale starts with the lonely voice of 10 year old Jane
Eyre, played marvelously by past Academy Award winner for THE PIANO
Anna Paquin. She tells us, "My parents died when I was very young ...
I went to stay with my Aunt who didn't love me." Her aunt, Mrs. Reed
(Fiona Shaw), soon packs her off with the stern and self-righteous Mr.
Brocklehurst (John Wood from RICHARD III) who runs the Lowood Charity
School. She gives strict instructions that she wants Jane to stay
there year round even during vacation. Sound is important in this
show. Listen in these scenes the way the sound effects editor has
removed almost all ambient noises to accentuate the dialogue and the
small sounds in the room.
Mr. Brocklehurst promises to "tame her spirit" which he does by
introducing her to her new fellow students with ridicule and making her
stand her first day on a stool without food. There are many other
scenes of abuse from him and from the head teacher Miss Scatcherd
(Geraldine Chaplin). Jane makes instant friends with Helen Burns
(Leanne Rowe) whose hair the headmaster chops off because her natural
curls are a blasphemy to God. A happy lot, that school.
After an excellent beginning, Zeffirelli sends in the second team.
The beautiful and expressive Anna Paquin is replaced by the morose
Charlotte Gainsbourg who was able to play a quirky teenager in THE
CEMENT GARDEN, but was out of her league as Jane Eyre. She has the
long neck of giraffe and enunciates her words without nuance or emotion
as if she is angry at the director for requiring her to speak. She
creates Jane Eyre as an unlikable and unsympathetic character. Joining
Gainsbourg is William Hurt who spends all of the movie brooding.
Jane comes to live at Mr. Rochester's large castle called
Thornfield Hall, actually filmed in England at Haddon Hall. She is
coming in response to a letter from a Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright)
looking for a governess to a young Adele Varens (Josephine Serre) who
lives there. Adele is a sweet little girl who asks her new teacher
about their relationship, "Mademoiselle, will we be very happy?" Jane
sternly replies, "We will work hard, and we will be content."
When Rochester meets Jane, he asks, "Are you fond of presents?"
With blank eyes she replies, "I hardly know. I have little experience
of them." Jane is painfully honest and tells her master that he is not
handsome, but that "tastes differ. Beauty is of little consequence."
Later he tells her, "Jane, you're a strange and almost unearthly
thing." Jane learns that Thornfield Hall holds some deep dark secret.
The servant Grace Poole (Billie Whitelaw) warns her, "If I were you
Miss, I'd get in the habit of bolting my doors when I go to bed."
Soon Rochester is engaged to the beautiful and rich Blanche Ingram
(Elle Macpherson from SIRENS). She has radiant, curly, blond hair in
sharp contrast to Jane dull, straight, and black hair.
So much about the peripheral aspects of the film are outstanding.
The sets by Roger Hall are rich and evocative of the early nineteenth
century. They feel real and not like museum pieces. The
cinematography (David Watkin) is a somber blend of dark shades of gray,
blue, brown, and green. The movie has pervasive and rich music by
Claudio Cappani and Alessio Vlad. The music moves seamlessly between
the sweeping grandeur and the delicate personal pieces.
After a strong beginning and then a middle featuring too much
footage of Gainsbourg, the film really comes into its own in the last
part and begins to engage the viewer much more than the middle part. I
really liked the show absent the issue of the two leads. The conundrum
is why did Zeffirelli cast Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre, and why
didn't he give better directorial guidance to William Hurt? This is
the same director that made the risky decision to cast two young and
unknown actors (Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting) in the lead rules in
ROMEO AND JULIET. This was a decision as brilliant as his logic was
flawed in choosing the lifeless Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre. I
frankly have no idea how he could have made a choice so bad.
JANE EYRE runs a bit long at 1:52 and some parts would have better
been left on the cutting room table by editor Richard Marden. The film
is correctly rated PG for a single scene of a bloody wound and a couple
of mild profanities. There is no violence, nudity, or sex other than a
couple of almost platonic kisses. The film would be fine for any kid
old enough to be interested in the material which I would guess to be
about 9. I really liked the show, flaws and all, and recommend it to
you. To be fair, I should point out that my wife thought the movie was
"appalling bad," and said she was almost ready walk out. Usually when
we disagree, it is a movie that I hate, and she thinks is pretty good,
but here we reversed. Finally, I give the film ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes