May 3, 1996 in Seven

Newest Version Of ‘Jane Eyre’ Lacks Emotion

John Anderson Newsday
 

Given the public’s familiarity with (and presumed affection for) “Jane Eyre,” the casting of Charlotte Gainsbourg in the title role is as intriguing as it is wrongheaded.

Alternately asexual and erotic, birdlike and nervous, Gainsbourg is an alien creature, an exotically plain Jane whose attraction to and for William Hurt’s less-than-terrifying Edward Rochester is as unlikely as the story itself.

When Rochester mutters, “Jane, you strange, almost unearthly thing …” we can only nod our heads in agreement. This, unfortunately, is not enough to enthrall, nor to dilute boredom.

But any adaptation of “Jane Eyre” that features both Billie Whitelaw and Elle MacPherson - actresses who came to prominence, respectively, via Samuel Beckett and Sports Illustrated - is trying to have its scone and eat it, too.

Franco Zeffirelli’s latest foray into the Great Works - and the seemingly umpteenth film version of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel about a young woman’s journey up from poverty - proves once again that despite the book’s popularity, it’s probably unfilmable.

Go ahead, check your film guides: Almost every entry for every version - even the most famous, the 1944 Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine vehicle adapted by Aldous Huxley, John Houseman and Robert Stevenson - implies sloth.

And merely committing literature to film does not justify the finished product. Success is about what you leave out, and how you balance what’s left.

What tension there is in this “Jane Eyre” arises out of the director’s devotion to text and his seemingly active resistance to making his film entertaining.

Zeffirelli devotes much more time to the younger Jane - played with precocious self-assurance by the Oscar-winning Anna Paquin.

What he gives us is essentially two movies, with the earlier one far more interesting.

Paquin’s Jane is proudly defiant, denying the assertion by her nasty aunt, Mrs. Reed (Fiona Shaw), that she’s a liar, defying the sadistic schoolmaster, Brockelhurst (John Wood), and defending her best friend, Helen Burns (Leanne Rowe).

This is an interesting child (even if Paquin wears her jaw thrust out a bit too much) who seems in no way related to the Jane we meet up with some 10 years later.

The early part of the film also works well thanks to the presence of what we might dub the Austen Repertory Company - Shaw, Wood, Samuel West as St. John Rivers and Amanda Root as the kindly Miss Temple (and who might have made a splendid Jane).

In the latter section, we have Joan Plowright clucking her way through the Mrs. Fairfax role and Hurt, as usual, wearing his intellect on his sleeve; his acting is so deliberate and self-conscious that the kind of presence required of Rochester seems an impossibility.

Zeffirelli knew about finding the sensual center of great literature when he made his 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” but he seems now to think that respect equals austerity.

How else to explain the way he lets the blood out of Gainsbourg and Hurt? They do, in some ways, meet the physical requirements of their characters (Jane, for instance, is never described as a beauty).

But Zeffirelli never bothers to sell us on the love story. Gainsbourg’s performance is dignified, intelligent and proud; intellectually, we have to admire her.

Likewise Rochester, who has a mad wife in the attic (played, a bit sadly, by “Last Tango’s” Maria Schneider) and maintains a facade of civility over his smoldering anguish.

But for all the cold facts of “Jane Eyre” there’s little reason for an audience to invest emotionally in its characters, even if there is one memorable moment that defines both Jane and the message of the novel: “You were deeply loved,” Rivers tells Jane, when the facts of her birth are made known.

Given that this is a woman who essentially has lived alone all her life, it’s devastating in its resonance - thanks for which can be given almost entirely to Charlotte Bronte.

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “JANE EYRE” Locations: Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Franco Zeffirelli; starring William Hurt, Joan Plowright, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Anna Paquin Running time: 1:53 Rating: PG

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Jane Eyre”: Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: … there are people who will discover “Jane Eyre” here for the first time, so no fair spilling the beans. Suffice it so say Jane deserves everything good that can come her way, and that this movie is like watching the novel spring vividly to life. Joe Baltake/Scripps-McClatchy Western Service: Franco Zeffirelli’s new version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” - the eighth film of the book, believe it or not - has such a terrific first half-hour, thanks to the indelible presence of Anna Paquin as the young Jane, that it has nowhere to go but down. And down it goes, if only momentarily. Matters bog down somewhat when a rather sullen, stoic Charlotte Gainsbourg takes over the role of Jane and the oddly cast William Hurt signs in as the mysterious Rochester. But once these two excellent performers get their footing the film builds in stature and sturdiness, ending on a gnawingly poignant note you won’t soon forget. Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times: Director Franco Zeffirelli, as well known for directing operas as films like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Endless Love,” is certainly familiar with excessive emotions, so much so that going over the top is always a potential pitfall for his projects. So it is baffling to have to report that Zeffirelli’s version of “Jane Eyre” suffers from, of all things, a shortage of intense, identifiable passion. Gary Schwan/Cox News Service: Much credit goes to Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. He could have overplayed the more wildly Romantic aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel. Instead, he has directed a tightly focused character study that still manages to make room for the gothic. After all, who could totally ignore all that shrieking in the attic?

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “JANE EYRE” Locations: Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Franco Zeffirelli; starring William Hurt, Joan Plowright, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Anna Paquin Running time: 1:53 Rating: PG

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Jane Eyre”: Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: … there are people who will discover “Jane Eyre” here for the first time, so no fair spilling the beans. Suffice it so say Jane deserves everything good that can come her way, and that this movie is like watching the novel spring vividly to life. Joe Baltake/Scripps-McClatchy Western Service: Franco Zeffirelli’s new version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” - the eighth film of the book, believe it or not - has such a terrific first half-hour, thanks to the indelible presence of Anna Paquin as the young Jane, that it has nowhere to go but down. And down it goes, if only momentarily. Matters bog down somewhat when a rather sullen, stoic Charlotte Gainsbourg takes over the role of Jane and the oddly cast William Hurt signs in as the mysterious Rochester. But once these two excellent performers get their footing the film builds in stature and sturdiness, ending on a gnawingly poignant note you won’t soon forget. Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times: Director Franco Zeffirelli, as well known for directing operas as films like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Endless Love,” is certainly familiar with excessive emotions, so much so that going over the top is always a potential pitfall for his projects. So it is baffling to have to report that Zeffirelli’s version of “Jane Eyre” suffers from, of all things, a shortage of intense, identifiable passion. Gary Schwan/Cox News Service: Much credit goes to Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. He could have overplayed the more wildly Romantic aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel. Instead, he has directed a tightly focused character study that still manages to make room for the gothic. After all, who could totally ignore all that shrieking in the attic?

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