Jane Eyre (France/Italy/United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In an era when movies are again turning to classic literature for inspiration, it was only a matter of time before a new version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre reached the screen. One of the best-loved of all the Victorian novels, Jane Eyre combines social commentary with gothic romance. This new film, directed by Franco Zeffirelli (best known for his 1968 Oscar-nominated Romeo and Juliet), remains faithful to the original narrative in general, if not in all the particulars.

Of necessity, the story has been condensed, since it isn't possible to reproduce a full-length book as a two-hour movie. Screenwriters Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore have elected to retain Jane Eyre's full scope while elimiting many of the nuances. The result is a reasonably fast-paced story (with a confused sense of time) that occasionally struggles to develop its characters to their maximum potential. Ultimately, this film is on par with the 1944 Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version.

We are introduced to ten-year old Jane (Anna Paquin) in the early 1830s at Gateshead Hall, where she lives with her aunt and cousins. Orphaned at an early age, Jane has grown up unloved and unloving, and now her aunt has decided to send her to the Lowood Charity School, citing her as willful, obstinate, deceitful, and in need of a stern upbringing. At Lowood, Jane finds life difficult under the tutelage of the cold-hearted Mr. Brocklehurst (John Wood) and Miss Scatcherd (Geraldine Chaplin), but she forms a pair of solid friendships that help her through the hardest times.

After ten years at Lowood, an older, wiser, but still-spirited Jane (now played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) accepts a position as governess for the young French ward of Edward Rochester (William Hurt), master of Thornfield Hall. Jane settles in quickly, forming solid relationships with her charge, Adele Varens (Josephine Serre), and Thornfield's housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright). However, the master of the house makes the strongest impression on the young woman. From her first meeting with Edward, when she offers aid after he is thrown from a horse, she is infatuated, but his natural reticence keeps her from confessing her feelings. But there is something other than Edward for Jane to consider as she beomes established in her new situation, because Thornfield Hall hides a secret. Who, or what, lives in the attic, under the stern and watchful eye of the semi-vigilant Grace Poole (Billie Whitelaw)?

Jane Eyre is a love story, but, instead of the lighter romance and humor of Jane Austen's novels, this tale is marked by stark realism and a pervasive sense of misery. The meticulously accurate settings and beautiful-but-gloomy cinematography establish the atmosphere. Even the daytime scenes are drab and colorless, and many of the interior shots are so dark that it's difficult to see the characters' expressions. There's no doubt that one of the reasons Jane Eyre is so cheerless is because the shadows are often more important than the light. At least in the end, there is a moment of joyful catharsis.

With one exception, the acting is excellent. Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Cement Garden) brings Jane to life, and, on those occasions when the script fumbles because it's painting the narrative in too-broad strokes, she holds our attention and captures our sympathy. Unfortunately, Gainsbourg's opposite, William Hurt, lacks presence. His is a passionless portrayal of a tragic figure. The venerable Joan Plowright plays Mrs. Fairfax with grandmotherly goodwill. Josephine Serre, Amanda Root (who had the lead in Persuasion), and Anna Paquin are all solid in smaller roles.

Jane Eyre is about the contrast between a plain-but-spirited woman and a beautiful-but-venal one. It's about obligations and taking responsibility for one's actions. And, most of all, it's about the maturation of an unloved girl into a sensitive woman. Jane Eyre features one of literature's most independent, strong-willed female protagonists in a narrative brimming with repressed emotion and dark secrets.

Zeffirelli's picture fits nicely into the recent spate of films based on classic novels. It's a vast improvement over last year's hack job of The Scarlet Letter, but not as impressive as the "Jane Austen trio" (Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and the BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice). Nevertheless, for Bronte aficionados, lovers of Victorian romance, or those who simply appreciate literate love stories, Jane Eyre offers two hours of quality entertainment.

Jane Eyre (France/Italy/United Kingdom, 1995)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1996-04-05
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1