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France/Italy/UK 1996
Directed by
Franco Zeffirelli
112 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Jane Eyre (1996)

Although the first section of Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Charlotte Brontë’s classic English Gothic romance is a worry as the handling of Jane’s unhappy childhood is not only marred by the use of overly pretty children (Anna Paquin as Jane and Leanne Rowe as her friend Helen Burns, both of whom are rather awkward) and swamps it with Claudio Capponi and Alessio Vlad lush score, once we leap forward by twelve years to the story of the adult Jane and her life as governess at Thornfield Hall, caring for the ward of her intense but distant employer, Mr Rochestr, the film becomes surprisingly good.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, Charlotte Gainsbourg is captivating as Jane, not only plain-ish but having been brought up in the brutal environment of charity boarding school, guarded and unsmiling. Gainsbourg with her dark buttoned-up clothes, hair in a carefully-composed bun and pale make-up-less face not only has the right looks but brings to the screen an intelligence and pride combined with untutored-in-the-way-of-the-world vulnerability that makes her ideal as Brontë’s heroine.  

Somewhat more surprising is how effective William Hurt is as Mr. Rochester. Hurt is an actor we are familiar with playing bland middle-class males (his memorable roles as in Kiss Of The Spider Woman,1985, tend to be when he plays against type) but here he is remarkably effective as a mid-nineteenth squire who finds himself drawn to his strange governess at the same time as he conceals the burden of an unspeakable secret. (One might note here that many critics were unconvinced by Hurt who, they felt, lacked the requisite Byronic temperament). The two leads are ably supported by a cast which includes Joan Plowright, Billie Whitelaw, Geraldine Chaplin with even Elle Macpherson acquitting herself well as Blanche Ingram (and yes that’s Maria Schneider as Rochester’s first wife). Add to this David Watkins’ exquisite cinematography and Roger Hall’s rich production design and you have a film that does justice to the novel's evocative power.

Well, at least until its final section which comes after the climactic plot reveal with Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore’s script crunching through Brontë’s narrative, somewhat perfunctorily re-uniting Jane and Rochester (Hurt not being helped by some rather approximate make-up) and tying up everything with Jane’s voice-over. If it had been as good as the middle section I could easily have taken another thirty minutes so it's a pity we did not get them here. Still, what we do have is a commendable take on a much-filmed story.




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