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Jane Eyre

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Jane Eyre

Starring: William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Director: Franco Ziffirelli
Rated: PG
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: April 1996
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Joan Plowright, Anna Paquin, Geraldine Chaplin, Fiona Shaw, John Wood, Josephine Serre, Amanda Root, Leanne Rowe, Elle MacPherson

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

You have all been to movies that were dogs, but which, nevertheless, contain one or two outstanding performances. Well, tonight I got to see one of those rare examples of the reverse! The great director Franco Zeffirelli, who created the best movie production of Shakespeare in my lifetime, ROMEO AND JULIET (1968), has turned his tremendous creative genius and crafted a wonderful new JANE EYRE.

The substantial flaw that prevents this film from greatness is that Zeffirelli made one terrible casting choice in Charlotte Gainsbourg to play Jane Eyre. This is compounded further by William Hurt approaching his role as the other lead, Edward Rochester, with a cerebral and ethereal approach that lacks the passion and liveliness of past actors (Orson Wells, George C. Scott, and Timothy Dalton) who successfully brought this role to the screen. Even with problems with the leads, the majesty of the film and wonderful story of the novel (by Charlotte Bronte with screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Franco Zeffirelli) shine through.

The sad tale starts with the lonely voice of 10 year old Jane Eyre, played marvelously by past Academy Award winner for THE PIANO Anna Paquin. She tells us, "My parents died when I was very young ... I went to stay with my Aunt who didn't love me." Her aunt, Mrs. Reed (Fiona Shaw), soon packs her off with the stern and self-righteous Mr. Brocklehurst (John Wood from RICHARD III) who runs the Lowood Charity School. She gives strict instructions that she wants Jane to stay there year round even during vacation. Sound is important in this show. Listen in these scenes the way the sound effects editor has removed almost all ambient noises to accentuate the dialogue and the small sounds in the room.

Mr. Brocklehurst promises to "tame her spirit" which he does by introducing her to her new fellow students with ridicule and making her stand her first day on a stool without food. There are many other scenes of abuse from him and from the head teacher Miss Scatcherd (Geraldine Chaplin). Jane makes instant friends with Helen Burns (Leanne Rowe) whose hair the headmaster chops off because her natural curls are a blasphemy to God. A happy lot, that school.

After an excellent beginning, Zeffirelli sends in the second team. The beautiful and expressive Anna Paquin is replaced by the morose Charlotte Gainsbourg who was able to play a quirky teenager in THE CEMENT GARDEN, but was out of her league as Jane Eyre. She has the long neck of giraffe and enunciates her words without nuance or emotion as if she is angry at the director for requiring her to speak. She creates Jane Eyre as an unlikable and unsympathetic character. Joining Gainsbourg is William Hurt who spends all of the movie brooding.

Jane comes to live at Mr. Rochester's large castle called Thornfield Hall, actually filmed in England at Haddon Hall. She is coming in response to a letter from a Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright) looking for a governess to a young Adele Varens (Josephine Serre) who lives there. Adele is a sweet little girl who asks her new teacher about their relationship, "Mademoiselle, will we be very happy?" Jane sternly replies, "We will work hard, and we will be content."

When Rochester meets Jane, he asks, "Are you fond of presents?" With blank eyes she replies, "I hardly know. I have little experience of them." Jane is painfully honest and tells her master that he is not handsome, but that "tastes differ. Beauty is of little consequence." Later he tells her, "Jane, you're a strange and almost unearthly thing." Jane learns that Thornfield Hall holds some deep dark secret. The servant Grace Poole (Billie Whitelaw) warns her, "If I were you Miss, I'd get in the habit of bolting my doors when I go to bed."

Soon Rochester is engaged to the beautiful and rich Blanche Ingram (Elle Macpherson from SIRENS). She has radiant, curly, blond hair in sharp contrast to Jane dull, straight, and black hair.

So much about the peripheral aspects of the film are outstanding. The sets by Roger Hall are rich and evocative of the early nineteenth century. They feel real and not like museum pieces. The cinematography (David Watkin) is a somber blend of dark shades of gray, blue, brown, and green. The movie has pervasive and rich music by Claudio Cappani and Alessio Vlad. The music moves seamlessly between the sweeping grandeur and the delicate personal pieces.

After a strong beginning and then a middle featuring too much footage of Gainsbourg, the film really comes into its own in the last part and begins to engage the viewer much more than the middle part. I really liked the show absent the issue of the two leads. The conundrum is why did Zeffirelli cast Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre, and why didn't he give better directorial guidance to William Hurt? This is the same director that made the risky decision to cast two young and unknown actors (Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting) in the lead rules in ROMEO AND JULIET. This was a decision as brilliant as his logic was flawed in choosing the lifeless Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre. I frankly have no idea how he could have made a choice so bad.

JANE EYRE runs a bit long at 1:52 and some parts would have better been left on the cutting room table by editor Richard Marden. The film is correctly rated PG for a single scene of a bloody wound and a couple of mild profanities. There is no violence, nudity, or sex other than a couple of almost platonic kisses. The film would be fine for any kid old enough to be interested in the material which I would guess to be about 9. I really liked the show, flaws and all, and recommend it to you. To be fair, I should point out that my wife thought the movie was "appalling bad," and said she was almost ready walk out. Usually when we disagree, it is a movie that I hate, and she thinks is pretty good, but here we reversed. Finally, I give the film ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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