Film review: Jane Eyre (1996), directed by Franco Zefferelli
The 1996 version of Jane Eyre, directed by Franco Zefferelli, stars Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of French singer Serge Gainsbourg) and William Hurt.
It begins with credits, then a scene where young Jane gets locked in the Red Room … and then it’s back to the credits. A little bit strange. After the second set of credits, Brocklehurst arrives. Young Jane is played by Anna Paquin. As young Jane, I think she’s very good. She’s feisty and passionate yet has a sense of vulnerability.
I’m liking Mrs Reed and her nasty offspring in this. She seems to be what I imagine her to be, very much trying to get sympathy from Brocklehurst by faking dismay and that sort of thing. John and the sisters are just spoiled and nasty brats – like they are! The fact that Mrs Reed is played by Fiona Shaw – Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films – probably helps. Mrs Reed is essentially aunt Petunia! On the IMDb message board for this adaptation, someone had actually pointed this out, along with other similarities with HP, which was quite funny. 🙂
Unlike most other adaptations, this one lingers on Lowood. It’s not just “okay, it’s awful there and she’s mistreated but she has a friend, friend dies, cut to adult Jane”, but actually some care has been invested. We see Helen Burns with her lovely, red hair (which indeed does curl naturally, unlike Liz Taylor’s corkscrews in ’43), the evil Miss Scatcherd who seems to take a Snape-like interest in tormenting Helen (although to be fair, Snape doesn’t whip out birch twigs and beat the students he doesn’t like), which is contrasted by the concerned, warm and overall lovely Miss Temple, the angel of Lowood School (Amanda Root, Anne Elliot of BBC’s Persuasion ’95). Miss Temple wants to call the doctor to see to Helen’s cough, and Miss Scatcherd says she’ll speak to Mr Brocklehurst, but I bet she never did. Not until it was too late, anyway.
There are a couple of Lowood scenes that stand out in my memory. The first is when Jane draws a portrait of Helen with her bonnet off – Brocklehurst arrives and orders the hair cut off. Jane’s response? Aside from protesting, she removes her own bonnet and bends forward to have hers cut as well. Bravo! The second is Miss Temple talking to the girls as they are getting into bed. She does genuinely care about these girls, all of them, and gives them encouragement; they might be at Lowood, but they have been blessed with intelligence.
Helen’s cough doesn’t improve, Jane goes to find her and gets invited into the bed, as she’s wearing nothing on her feet and the floor appears to be freezing cold. I would say that Jane’s way of saying “don’t know” when she’s crying sounds like it comes from the Land Down Under (Paquin grew up in New Zealand), but everything else she says is in a very good English accent. Helen dies, and when this is discovered in the morning, it actually brought tears to my eyes! In all the recent Jane Eyre indulging, I’ve not cried once, yet here I did. They had built it up, just because they’ve lingered on Lowood, so it packs more of an emotional punch. It’s well done. Both child actors are also very good, which probably helps.
One thing I’ve noticed about this version is that it doesn’t use voiceovers. When Jane’s a child, we never hear adult Jane narrating what happens, or even doing so when she’s grown up. They show us instead, which I think I actually prefer.
Young Jane sits by Helen’s grave, and that’s where it shifts to adult Jane, being called by Miss Temple. Miss Temple has stayed at Lowood all this time and is now saying goodbye to Jane. There’s no mention here of Jane being a teacher there, just that she’s going away, and Miss Temple wishes her good luck. Jane says it feels as if she’s abandoning her, because in all the time at Lowood, Miss Temple has been her one, true friend aside from Helen.
Actually, there’s one voiceover: Mrs Fairfax (Joan Plowright) reading a letter as Jane is travelling to Thornfield.
Thornfield Hall is described as a rather lovely place in the book, I was surprised to find. Beautiful surroundings, garden, lots of flowers … and I think the place where they’ve shot it does this justice: Haddon Hall, outside Bakewell in Derbyshire, which was also used for Thornfield in 2006. While it has that gothic feel to it, at the same time, the flowers brings out the beauty. When we were there in July 2009, it was raining, so the only shots I got of the garden were the ones I got running out in the rain because I just had to get some pictures of the garden and the rain wasn’t going to stop me.
While we’ve taken time out from the plot, I like the costumes. The dresses and collars are kind of similar to the ones in 1970 which I’ve previously confessed to being unimpressed with. However, here, they actually look authentic. Similar doesn’t mean exactly the same. And another thing, Charlotte Gainsbourg was 25 at the time, but the thing is, she looks like she could be 18 and she looks remarkably plain. She’s a bit too tall for little Jane, but she gives the impression that she’s tiny. It’s very well acted.
Mrs Fairfax is a charming old lady, Adèle is a sweet little girl. By the miracle of editing, we’re led to believe Brimham Rocks near Harrogate in North Yorkshire are within sight of the Hall in Derbyshire. It’s a good, yet perhaps a bit too distinct, location. I was wondering what Brimham Rocks were (before re-watching the film last Friday), googled it, and the first picture I saw made me think “oh yeah, where they met the first time”. You can’t fail to recognise it, and that’s what I mean by it being distinct.
Pilot looks like a Tervuren, a Belgian Shepherd dog, fawn and black. It’s a big, cute, fwuffy dog. When they’re black, they’re called Groenendal, which was why I recognised it, because I thought “it’s one of them, just a different colour” (did I remember it was called Groenendal? Nope, it took some googling – if it had been a cat, it would’ve been a lot quicker!), because a friend of mine used to have one. He was a lovely dog, at least to me, putting his big head on my lap and being soooo soft.
Rochester … hm. Well, to begin with, William Hurt doesn’t look like Rochester, and he’s a bit too old. He’s too meek, soft-spoken and too bloody NICE! He does do the whole “woe is me” part very well, so I’m not altogether against his portrayal. There are bits to it that I like, here and there, but in total? It’s a no.
I remember seeing this on Swedish TV late one night years ago, and found it far too emotionally restrained. I wanted to howl “just SAY something! Just DO something!!” back then, and while I still think they’re perhaps a bit too stiff, I also see the nuances better now. Rochester is very subtle, which in itself is a bit wrong because he’s not a very subtle person, he’s quite blunt and forceful. It’s the age of Queen Victoria, it’s not as if they should just burst out in passionate tirades willy-nilly, but still, I wish there was a bit more bite to it. Jane’s fighting spirit might be subdued from eight years at Lowood, but it’s not in a bleedin’ coma!
Jane says she was a teacher for two years at Lowood in Lancashire, so we’re finally told. The book keeps saying “—shire” so we don’t know if it’s Lancashire or Yorkshire or, hey, even Nottinghamshire.
Some of the dialogue is very much taken from the book – not all the time, but not infrequently. At least that’s the impression I’m getting, as the same lines keep being repeated in different adaptations. Some of the lines from this adaptation I really love with their double meanings, like Jane’s “Remember, Adèle, the shadows are as important as the light” when she’s teaching her how to draw, which is followed by Rochester wondering if she really means that. Snap! Another one is that of Rochester: “I do honour my obligations, however they were incurred.” He’s talking about looking after Adèle, but we know he’s also thinking of his mad wife in the attic!
The scene after the bedroom fire is very telling. Spot on! They’re really getting the raw tenderness behind it, and they look like they’re on the way to kiss, but of course, they can’t. They won’t. Magnificent!!
Now, the Ingrams and all the other house guests arrive. As much as I adore the gorgeous Elle McPherson (Blanche), she has some super-stilted dialogue, as if she’s been stood in front of the camera and told “say this line … and the next one … and the next …” and then they’ve cut it together afterwards. It’s cringeworthy! It’s when the camera cuts to Blanche talking, then to someone else talking, then back to Blanche. Ugh! It gets better when she’s actually interacting with people and the environment, but overall, she’s a lot better in Sirens.
When Jane gets notice from Gateshead, she goes there to find St John Rivers (Samuel West) with his sister Mary (Charlotte Attenborough). He’s the rector of Gateshead, he says. Mrs Reed has had a change of heart (well, sort of, “twist my arm” sort of thing) and when Jane returns to Thornfield, Adèle is relieved to have her back, because she’s been told she’d be sent to school in Paris and was afraid she’d be gone before Jane returns.
One thing that bugged me was how the camera was out of focus, like when Jane’s with Mrs Reed. Is it to show that Mrs Reed is dying, that she can’t see properly? If so, it feels a bit heavy-handed in the telling and is just annoying. However, it’s not just in that particular scene, so that’s no excuse anyway.
The proposal is very tender, and heartfelt … in a very restrained sort of way. They kiss, but the kiss is a little bit lacking, somehow. Perhaps there’s just not an awful lot of chemistry between the two leads. One’s being a subtle and pained Rochester (heck, why not just call him Emo Rochester and get it over with?) and the other one is being a stiff Victorian governess. Even though Queen Vic ruled the country doesn’t mean everyone has to be so restrained, especially not when they’re alone, and alone with someone they’re passionately in love with? I don’t buy that.
Wedding. Impediment. Mad wife in attic. Jane leaves the house as soon as she’s changed. In the commotion following Jane’s departure and the house in turmoil because of the revelation of Bertha Mason, Rochester tries to ride after Jane’s carriage. Meanwhile, Grace Poole (Billie Whitelaw) is watching from a window, and as her back is turned, Bertha slips out, and sets fire to the place. Rochester is called back because of the fire (he doesn’t get very far). Grace Poole falls to her death over the bannister at the top of the stairs, where she’s struggling with Bertha, and then Bertha takes a dive too. Rochester falls down with the burning staircase.
Jane repeats the events of the ’43 version, i.e. she returns to Gateshead, which now belongs to the Rivers siblings. They take her in, and she sleeps, and when she wakes up, a month has apparently passed, and she finds out her uncle John in Madeira has left her his entire estate. She doesn’t get a couple of cousins she never knew she had, which is a shame. Instead, she returns to the ruins of Thornfield (which is another Derbyshire location, Wingfield Manor, a ruin – have yet to go there).
Rochester laments that he used to be “vigorous and full of life” – erm, say what? When has he ever? He never really struck me as that before in the movie! More quiet and miserable. It ends with them reunited, the kissing has passion behind it, but it’s still so restrained. I’d like to give them both a good shake and tell them they’re going to live happily ever after, so please can they actually do it once more, with feeling?
Huh, okay, so she does a voiceover in the end, over the two of them walking with Pilot, so we find out they got married, he’s regained his sight in one eye and could see his likeness when their firstborn was put into his arms. Adèle is sent for so she lives with them instead of going to school, and she’s loved as if she was their own daughter. The final words are very beautiful: “We are truly devoted, my Edward and I. Our hearts beat as one. Our happiness is complete.”
In short: I really enjoyed this adaptation. It’s certainly not without flaws, but it’s beautifully done, even if it’s too emotionally repressed.
3.5 out of 5 strange creative decisions.