The image of the sensible Englishwoman chafing against the sexual etiquette of the 19th century seems to have struck a chord amid the moral confusion of the 1990s. She is a pre-modern heroine for a postmodern age, a woman caught between romantic surrender and embryonic feminism—in the war of the sexes, she holds out the nostalgic promise of a truce with honor. Jane Austen, of course, has led the way, with the success of such film adaptations as Sense and Sensi-
bility. And now Charlotte Brontë is the latest hot property. Her 1847 classic, Jane Eyre, currently being adapted as a $6-million musical to be launched this fall in Toronto, has received a new screen makeover.
The latest movie of Jane Eyre, while not exactly thrilling, is a handsome, well-acted production that is admirably faithful to the book.
Director Franco Zeffirelli, known for Shakespeare-lite screen versions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, has blown the cobwebs out of Brontë’s novel without sac-
rificing its austere spirit. And although his direction tends towards the prosaic, he has made some adventurous casting choices.
Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of actress Jane Birkin and French singer Serge Gainsbourg) plays Jane, the young governess who falls cautiously in love with her master. And, rather than have a Hollywood star such as Julia Roberts try to scruff up her glamor for the role, the film-makers have found a natural fit for a character that the script describes as “plain in a very special way.” Gainsbourg has an awkward, unconventional beauty—a gazelle neck, a severe gaze and an impudent mouth set in a pout of permanent adolescence. Playing Jane as an orphaned child, Anna Paquin (The Piano), complements her well, with a resemblance that creates an intriguing continuity between the two performances.
As Jane’s master, the brooding and mysterious Rochester, William Hurt is surprisingly credible. Adopting a flawless accent, the actor effectively disappears in the role. Although it looks as if he is in danger of slipping over the edge into psychotic intensity at any moment, he never does. Joan Plowright, meanwhile, anchors the narrative with a commanding intelligence as Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And—talk about strange casting—Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) pops up in an anti-climactic cameo as Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife in the attic.
Leavening the story’s gothic overtones, Zeffirelli has delivered a responsible likeness of the Brontë novel—a plain Jane Eyre. But his stately direction skims the psychological surface. The result is a museum piece that lacks dramatic urgency.
Perhaps the story needs updating: today, of course, Jane would be suing her employer for sexual harassment and Bertha would be on Prozac.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.