Jane Eyre (1996): Master Director, Choppy Script

Long before becoming a serious reviewer of Jane Eyre films, I saw the 1996 movie version. It made little impression on me; all I recalled years later was that William Hurt was a poor choice to play Rochester.

 

I just (in late 2011) watched it again, and my memory was accurate on both counts: Hurt should not have played Rochester, and the film was largely unimpressive.

 

This is not to say the movie lacks high points; its acclaimed director, Franco Zeffirelli, did exercise his formidable skills. However, limitations of time and script keep this from the top ranks of Jane Eyre film treatments.

In addition to Zeffirelli and Hurt, an impressive mass of talent was assembled for this project: Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane; Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax; and even Anna Paquin (in her first role since winning an Oscar in The Piano) as the young Jane.

 

Sadly, the script's quality doesn't match the cast's. Coming in at a shade under two hours, this production couldn't portray all of Bronte's rich developments, but its herky-jerky, cut-and-paste screenplay (co-written by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore) does far too little justice to the original.

 

The film is eager to leave Gateshead. It begins with a voice-over by the adult Jane: "My parents died when I was very young ...." In a few moments, we've heard the bare-bones background and seen Jane cast screaming into the Red Room. Then come opening credits, followed immediately by Reverend Brocklehurst's visit. Mrs. Reed asks her son, "John, dear, would you go and find that wretched girl and bring her down?" The Reverend then greets Jane by saying, "I hear you're a wicked child, Jane Eyre." These are but two examples of the trite invented dialogue that is too profuse in this film.

 

Jane then accompanies Brocklehurst to Lowood, reaching that unhappy place less than nine minutes into the movie. As soon as she enters, Brocklehurst orders her to stand on the stool and tells everyone she is a liar. So many abrupt shortcuts!

 

After suffering several indignities, Helen Burns sickens and dies. Jane visits her grave, and then, in a scene of instant transformation, emerges from the cemetery as an 18-year-old about to board a coach for Thornfield Hall. She stops for a touching goodbye scene with Miss Temple (again, made-up and cloying).

 

At this point, another sudden transformation occurs: the film changes from a "loosely based on" hodgepodge to a watchable rendition of Jane Eyre. Lovely countryside fills the viewer's eye as Jane travels to Thornfield. Soon after she arrives (and meets the high-strung Mrs. Fairfax), she is out walking and encounters a gentleman who falls from his horse. Much of the dialogue thereabouts is true Bronte prose, and it's a pleasure to hear it.

 

Scenes in the Hall are a mixed bag. Adele is suitably charming; Mrs. Fairfax talks and works realistically, though she sounds more anxious than in most portrayals; Grace Poole is pale and haunted-looking. Hurt labors mightily to be a good Rochester, but that is his downfall; he is so clearly making an effort to show various emotions that they ring as false as his British accent. No disrespect to Hurt, as I've enjoyed him in other films (such as Broadcast News), but he was poorly cast here.

 

The snobbish society figures have just a couple of scenes, in each of which Rochester jokingly tells Blanche Ingram that he can't afford something (testing her devotion to him rather than his fortune). Blanche is played by a supermodel of that time, Elle MacPherson; she is gorgeous but doesn't get to say much.

 

Jane returns to Gateshead, obeying her dying aunt's wish. Stepping from the coach, she is greeted by a stranger: St. John Rivers, a parson in those parts! Two disparate chunks of the plot are thus combined, as if in a blender.

 

Charlotte Gainsbourg makes a generally believable Jane. She performs her duties as one would expect, teaching Adele, briefly bantering with Rochester, worrying about the strange laughter from the attic, and dousing the master when his bed has been torched. She is usually an austere presence, and whenever she is emotional or tired, there are exaggeratedly dark rings around her eyes. At times — in particular, when she puts on her wedding gown — she looks startlingly young; we wonder whether she is capable of entering into an informed union with such an older man of the world. In any case, her affection for him is mysterious, as we haven't seen her talk with him enough to encounter his "exalted" thoughts, which impressed her in the book.

 

After their wedding is halted, Jane returns to Thornfield, packs, and bustles into a passing coach. Rochester is chasing her, but he sees that Bertha has set the Hall ablaze, so he must turn back. (In the book, two months pass between Jane's departure and Bertha's arson.) He runs up the stairs in time to see Bertha push Grace Poole to her death(?!), then make a suicidal leap.

 

Back near Gateshead, St. John proposes to Jane in the coolest and driest way imaginable, with no mention of India. Jane declines and returns to Thornfield, where she finds Mrs. Fairfax caring for Rochester amid the ruins. They reunite, and Jane's voice-over opens the final scene: "And so I married him." She does mention his returned eyesight and their son, wrapping affairs up nicely.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Most of the cast is good to excellent 
  • Scenery is lovely and props ring true 
  • Bits of Bronte's dialogue remind the viewer how well she wrote 
  • The finale is mostly accurate 

WEAKNESSES

  • Some key storylines are omitted or awkwardly revamped 
  • Invented dialogue is often painfully trite 
  • William Hurt is an unconvincing Rochester