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
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
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
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
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
Most of the cast is good to
Scenery is lovely and props ring
Bits of Bronte's dialogue remind the viewer
how well she wrote
The finale is mostly
Some key storylines are omitted or
Invented dialogue is often painfully
William Hurt is an unconvincing