Back in early 2011, As part of my quest to prepare for the release of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre adaptation, I decided to watch as many of the previous films as possible to give me some context. I’ll be re-posting these reviews from my old blog over the next few days.
Today I watched the 1998 Franco Zeffirelli version, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. Zeffirelli’s ability to realize gorgeous sets has been rocking my operas for years, and he doesn’t drop the ball here. The sets look just about perfect, and he seems to understand that just about every reader envisions the skies in Jane Eyre as being always overcast. The score by Claudio Capponi and Alessio Vlad is also quite beautiful, without being obtrusive. Kudos to casting for mainly sticking to the book’s physical descriptions of its characters. Charlotte Gainsbourg is not conventionally beautiful and is kept quite simple-looking here, unlike Joan Fontaine in the 1943 adaptation, which, by the way, I won’t even be watching, because I’ve seen it before and Did Not Approve. And that’s really too bad because Orson Welles could have been The Bomb Mr. Rochester. Gainsbourg exudes the inner strength needed to portray Jane well. William Hurt gets Rochester’s gruffness, if not his sardonic sense of humor.
Unfortunately, that’s where my positive comments end. This movie was so DEVOID of passion. Well, William Hurt was doing his damnedest, but he was working all alone. Charlotte Gainsbourg either never tried, or was never instructed, to enact any part of Jane’s personality aside from the quietly independent part. The character of Jane Eyre is not supposed to be “naturally austere,” but have moments of real joy and fire. Jane Eyre is a sexy book! But this was not a sexy movie and CG was not a sexy Jane Eyre.
The separation between Jane and Rochester was set up as merely a result of his marriage, and we’re never shown how Jane struggles with her decision to leave, and finally decides to do so as an act of respect for herself, not convention. Their separation isn’t even as painful as it should be, because the filmmakers didn’t take much time to show how well-matched these characters are supposed to be: we never see how Jane comes to consider herself Rochester’s intellectual equal, how they match each other at conversation. Yes, there are some scenes between them taken more or less directly from the book, but these are cut too short to have any real juice. There is one really sweet scene when Jane returns to Thornfield after having visited Mrs. Reed, and Adele and Mr. Rochester are so happy to see her that we catch a glimpse of how Jane perceives these people as her family, and Thornfield as her home, regardless of any class boundaries.
I suppose my real problem with this film is the lack of tension or pacing. Instead of thinking how they could address important elements of the book without making a three-day-long movie, the filmmakers seemed to be trying to cut out as much as they could without offending they viewers they knew would notice. A lot happens in the book. I understand that it is not possible to address it all in a film. But to create tension, sometimes movies need to slow things down and give them time to develop in a viewer’s mind, even if it means making hard decisions about content.
I give this movie two and half out of a possible five lightning bolts for nice visuals and an attempt to cater to readers, but failure to grasp the sense and emotion of the novel.