Director Franco Zeffirelli Creates A Chilly Adaptation of 'JaneEyre'.
By Stacey Richter
FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI, KNOWN for his beautiful but vacant style, has brought the screen yet another adaptation of a 19th-century classic--Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's template for a generation of romance novels. Adaptations of great books for the screen usually result in some diminishment (anyone remember Gregory Peck in Moby Dick?), more rarely a pleasant surprise (as in Sense and Sensibility), and sometimes, as in this version of Jane Eyre, an odd sort of sameness. The movie really is a lot like the book, only shorter. Zeffirelli has achieved this through a remarkable fidelity to Bronte's tone, and the movie has an overcast, somber melancholy that seems to have been scraped straight from the author's brain.
The question, though, is why? What's the point of reproducing the suffocating atmosphere of a 19th-century drawing room for a 20th-century audience anticipating the end of the millennium?
Jane Eyre's life is a study in hard knocks, control, self-denial, and the ultimate redemptive power of these traits. I'm not sure if Charlotte Gainsbourg is a good actor, but with her bluish teeth and unnaturally long neck, she nails down the role of Jane, a "strange, unearthly thing," as her boyfriend Rochester says, perfectly. Jane is an unlikely heroine for the big screen--poor, powerless and plain. Like Mary Reilly, a 19th-century character Julia Roberts played earlier this year, she's been grievously mistreated as a child and has been somehow formed by this experience into an extraordinarily sensitive and loyal gal.
Some may find the prominence given to pain and austerity in Jane Eyre archaic and puzzling. I went with some friends who hadn't read the book, and they admitted to being perplexed. The plot twists seemed bizarre and overwrought to them, and they couldn't quite comprehend why the hell Rochester kept a crazy lady in his attic or why he and Jane hardly ever spoke. Some of this is probably due to the fact that the movie is necessarily shorter than the book, and some may be because, in his fidelity to the original, Zeffirelli has failed to make a film with much connection or resonance to the times we live in now. Jane Eyre seems to function best as a sort of companion to the novel, a beautiful representation of the page. Zeffirelli and cinematographer David Watkin have in fact made a lush and lovely film; half the scenes seem to have been shot in clear morning light, and everything looks just great.
If you have read the book, Jane Eyre is less puzzling, though it's still full of both hits and misses. Charlotte Gainsbourg is wonderfully riveting in the title role. Anna Paquin, as the child Jane, has a delightful self-possessed gravity, though her part of the movie is rather rushed, and her relationship with friend Helen seems strained and false. William Hurt, on the other hand, doesn't fare so well as Rochester. The chemistry between Hurt and Gainsbourg is practically non-existent, and the fact that he's so much older than her seems like bad luck, rather than an element of attraction. When Rochester asks Jane if she finds him attractive and she glibly replies "no," I believed her, and continued to believe her even as their interest in each other grew.
Which seems to point to another fault in this film: Period romances derive much of their strength by showing repressed sexuality in a way films of contemporary times never really can. I mean, waiting can be sexier, at least dramatically, than scenes of people actually doing it. And there are, in Jane Eyre, several wonderful scenes of Jane and Rochester shaking hands, with an intensity equal to make-out scenes in other movies. But aside from the hand-shakes, there isn't much energy between the two.
Zeffirelli's interests seem more spiritual, in a Puritan kind of way; he constantly emphasizes Jane's plainness and austerity on one hand and Rochester's angst on the other. Passion doesn't seem to enter the equation. When they do finally get together, their love is a reward for their suffering, a redemption, rather than the rapturous connection we associate with movie love nowadays.
In this, Zeffirelli remains quite true to the spirit of Bronte's novel, but these ideas seem forever out-of-style. The final scene has Jane and Rochester standing arm in arm beneath some flowering trees with the words "The End" twining around them. It reminded me of a sunset-love postcard from the '70s, and rather than signaling that the story was finished or complete, the corniness of the image just made the audience giggle.
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