Just when Jane Austen's boomlet seemed to be at last petering out, along comes Charlotte Bronte.
Now that I've got that out of my system, I must point out that Franco Zeffirelli's adaption adaptation of Bronte's highly tTC melodramatic "Jane Eyre" is quite an effective piece of work. It may even restore William Hurt to leading manhood; it certainly should boost Charlotte Gainsbourg to leading womanhood.
These roles, played most legendarily by Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in a 1944 version, are fully realized by the stars. Hurt, who's always seemed so contemporary and so at sea in a costume (he all but disappeared in "Gorky Park") makes an effectively haunted Edward Rochester, a mopey hunk given to dark mutterings and reckless cantors canters across the Moors moors to both the consternation and titillation of his ward's governess, the plucky but plain Jane (Gainsbourg.)
But it's really Gainsbourg's film. Like some of Austen's energetic characters, Jane is compelled to our attention today by her refusal to accept social convention as it oppresses her and her willingness to find a self even when society tells her she can have no self, she is lucky merely to breathe. Gainsbourg is all steely determination and grit and common sense; she is, in fact, a thoroughly modern Millie.
Abandoned by a nasty, cruel, creepy aunt, Jane is placed in a nasty, cruel, creepy orphanage, where nasty, cruel creepy John Wood holds forth on female purity. He's so awful I genuinely mourned the absence of machine guns in a movie set in an 1847 English orphanage; it would have been nice to watch Sylvester Stallone blow a couple of magazines full of 9 mm hollow-points through him. But young Jane, played brilliantly by the great child actress Anna Paquin, holds her own against these dreadful people, eventually becoming the orphanage's humane teacher and then finally getting herself ap-pointed the governess of a mysterious rich man's ward.
That mysterious rich man is Hurt, slightly dissolute, obviously wacko. As an actor in the past few years, Hurt has yielded entirely to irony, giving all his lesser roles a weird spin that suggests he understands he's too good for them. Not this time. He's gone beyond mere eccentricism eccentricity to be as real as possible, a man genuinely reeking of pain.
They make a good team, the tough-as-nails little Jane and the man-in-agony Edward, and we can see the logic of the pairing: She has the capacity to care for him and quiet the rage inside. Certain other things don't work out as well. What, pray tell, is silly Elle MacPherson doing in this movie, with her lean sculpture of a face that actually displays bone structure? Bone structure was not a big 19th-century concept; it didn't become apparent that women had bones in their faces until the advent of Suzy Parker in the 1950s! And it doesn't help that as an actress, MacPherson never makes you forget that she's a supermodel.
Zeffirelli is remarkably restrained for a director who once gave us Mel Gibson as Hamlet and a 16-year-old as Juliet. The film isn't nearly so pictorial as previous romps through the century, chiefly the Merchant-Ivory crew's and, more recently, Ang Lee's lush, green adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility."
But at the same time, Zeffirelli can't get the film beyond Bronte's plot, which is as clunky a potboiler as anything Danielle Steel ever dreamed up. It's full of last-minute revelations of madness, secret characters lurking in attics, fires consuming the guilty and the innocent alike, all of it seeming so exotic when compared to with Jane Eyre's plain-as-a-button personality.
Yet the film does fascinate, even as lumpy as it is, chiefly on the strength of the two riveting central performances.
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Released by Miramax
Pub Date: 4/19/96