The Brontes--particularly Charlotte and Emily--were first and foremost keen social observers, and pioneering feminist politics is laced through their novels in a way the current Brit Lit darling, Jane Austen, could scarcely have imagined a generation earlier. That's why it's so irksome to see Jane Eyre get shorted by Zeffirelli, reduced to a mere nineteenth-century "love story" about a plucky heroine and a dashing, doomed hero.
When little Anna Pacquin's Jane is shipped off by her awful relatives to that awful orphanage school in the company of the awful Puritan tyrant Mr. Brocklehurst (John Wood), she has plenty to say for herself: "I am not a liar!" for one thing. And she sacrifices all her hair, too, when her only school friend is shorn of the red curls she has vainly exposed to classmates. But by the time little Jane grows up into a twenty-year-old governess and teacher, now played by the French star Charlotte Gainsbourg, she's become curiously meek and accommodating; Zeffirelli very nearly hands the film over to the mysterious master of Thornfield Hall, Edward Rochester, who is bizarrely portrayed here by the American actor William Hurt. He's a bundle of tics who never shaves and lurches around his gloomy rooms with two quarts of brandy inside him, and it's a wonder that Jane doesn't call the cops rather than fall head over heels. Those who ingested the book back in sophomore year and know who's hidden away up in the poor man's attic may not be put off by this grungy, highly Yankeefied Rochester (the director's bow to grit, we must conclude), but the suspicion lurks that not even the earnest Signor Sapirelli--er, Zeffirelli--can take his own casting very seriously.
To wit: Upon their first meeting, the male principal falls from his galloping horse, and the female lead rushes to his aid:
"Are you hurt?" she asks.
"Why, yes," you expect him to answer. "Bill Hurt. I'm sure as hell not Mr. Rochester."
The best-known movie version of Jane Eyre was released in 1944, with Joan Fontaine in the title role and the highly emotive Orson Welles as Rochester, set against the kind of stormy Gothic background with which all three writing Brontë sisters (and their brother, Branwell) have long been associated. It's startling to realize that the 52-year-old film still seems fresher than this new one; as a matter of fact, so does the 1971 TV movie with Susannah York and George C. Scott. By contrast, whenever the glum and immobile Ms. Gainsbourg opens her mouth, it is not Jane Eyre's intelligence, patience or independence that issues forth but Franco Zeffirelli's customary soft-focus emotion. "The shadows are as important as the light," this smitten, artistic Jane tells the man she secretly loves, but Zeffirelli has always been a little weak on shadows. Anyone who can knock the keen edge off Shakespeare the way he can is likely to blind a Brontë with light, and that's what happens here. This rich and timeless heroine, always more vivid than any of Austen's repetitious ones, never really comes to life because she's stuck in all that romantic goo.
With the principals compromised, we look for satisfaction among the minor players--Wood's stern and stony Mr. Brocklehurst, the great Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax (the kindly housekeeper of Thornfield Hall), the little-seen Geraldine Chaplin as the cruel headmistress at young Jane's "school." For those who've forgotten, two additional Brontë sisters actually died in just such a place, which probably accounts for the power of the novel's early sections, if not for the film's.
Given the choice, I'd head for the library to immerse again in firsthand Charlotte Bronte; failing that, spend a couple of hours with Fontaine and Welles, courtesy of the local video outlet. Only as a last resort do we recommend this inadequate piece of business.
Jane Eyre. Screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Franco Zeffirelli, based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. With Charlotte Gainsbourg, William Hurt, Anna Pacquin and Joan Plowright.