Jane Eyre (1996): Master Director, Choppy Script
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
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 Brontë'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
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
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.
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
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 Brontë 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Most of the cast is good to
Scenery is lovely and props ring
Bits of Brontë'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