JE96 is a feature film directed by Franco Zeffirelli that stars William Hurt as Rochester and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane. It also features Amanda Root as Miss Temple, Fiona Shaw as Aunt Reed, Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Anna Paquin as “Young Jane,” Elle Macpherson as Blanche Ingram, Samuel West as St. John Rivers, Maria Schneider as Bertha, and the man responsible for Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, as Colonel Dent.
For the most part, this cast is impressive. I said “for the most part” because a major reason I have never been able to bring myself to watch this movie is the fact that it stars William Hurt as Rochester. Hurt was fine in The Big Chill, Broadcast News, The Accidental Tourist and Body Heat, but Jane Eyre? What drugs was Zeffirelli on when he came up with that one? I am going into this afraid it will turn out to be another MP99 and I’ll end this post by saying “I watched it so you don’t have to.” Let’s see what happens.
Fiona Shaw’s Mrs. Reed is probably what the makers of Harry Potter saw when they were looking to cast Petunia Dursley. She’s a very good Mrs. Reed. But the Gateshead years are given short shrift here — Jane is tossed into the Red Room for a nanosecond, followed by the opening credits, followed by Mr. Brocklehurst’s visit to the house, followed by Jane and Mr. Brocklehurst leaving for Lowood. The whole thing takes maybe 5 minutes. Aunt Reed even knows about the uncle in Madeira at the beginning of the film. If I hadn’t known the story already, I might have found myself wondering why she didn’t contact him to take Jane off her hands from the instant her husband died.
Helen is very sweet and very good, but her deep, sincere religious faith is missing. For the most part, the only overt religion we see in this film is the rigid, uncompromising cruelty of Mr. Brocklehurst and Miss Scatcherd. But, in the book, Helen, Jane and Miss Temple show us the other side of faith — the kind, compassionate, giving kind of faith. Miss Scatchered acts as if she is the headmistress here, not Miss Temple. And, speaking of Miss Temple, Amanda Root is her usual stellar self in the role. Unfortunately, we do not get to see just how much of an influence Miss Temple is on Jane. Jane is far more outspoken as a child than she is in the book. When Brocklehurst demands that Helen’s curly red hair be cut off, Jane stands up to him and demands that her hair be cut off also. This is out of left field.
Jane’s transition from childhood to adulthood is as abrupt as it is in JE70 — we see Helen’s tombstone and then all of a sudden we see Charlotte Gainsbourg (who is not as pretty as other women who have played Jane — this is a good thing). Miss Temple is still at the school and, in fact, she tells Jane that it is “God’s will” for her to stay at the school and that she “cannot leave.” Poor thing.
Next thing we see, Jane is arriving at Thornfield, which is played by Haddon Hall in Bakewell, Derbyshire. Haddon Hall also appeared in The Princess Bride (Prince Humperdinck’s castle), JE11 (Thornfield), P&P05 (interiors used for the Inn at Lambton), Elizabeth, JE06 (Thornfield) and Lady Jane, among others. I can see why — it’s very impressive and very imposing.
Joan Plowright’s Mrs. Fairfax is fine. She’s somewhat flighty, not related to Edward through his mother’s family, and she speaks some French, but she’s fine. Elle Macpherson is an odd choice for Blanche.
What works in the film? Not much. The music is gorgeous. The sets are beautiful. The costumes are beautiful. But the goodness ends there.
There is so much wrong with this film that it’s hard to know where to begin. But I’ll start with William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Hurt’s English accent comes and goes. He never seems tortured enough, nor does he seem passionate enough. At one point, he says “I am hard and tough as an India rubber ball,” but he never makes me believe that he is. I honestly don’t understand what Jane sees in him; he has none of Rochester’s wit or charisma, and they spend so little time together in this movie that having them fall in love comes out of nowhere (despite the fact that Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that she’d noticed his “growing fondness for you”). I had wondered how Hurt would tackle the gypsy scene, but that was omitted, so I’ll never know.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Jane is better than Hurt’s Rochester, but I don’t see much passion in her either. Jane is somewhat restrained, but Gainsbourg is too restrained. At 5′ 8″, she’s far too tall to be Jane, so it’s probably a good thing that we don’t hear Edward constantly refer to her as a fairy or an elf or a sprite because that would just not be believable.
As for the film itself, it was OK until the last half hour or so. At that point, it bordered on being an unrecognizable mess. To backtrack a little bit, when Jane goes back to Gateshead to see her dying aunt, we learn that St John Rivers is the Rector of the Gateshead parish and that his sister Mary lives with him (as an aside, Samuel West is a fine actor, and I think he’s a little better as St John than he was as William Elliot, but he’s still no Greek god). After Jane returns to Thornfield, Edward asks her to marry him and all of a sudden it’s her wedding day (we never see Bertha tear the veil). When the wedding is aborted, we finally meet Bertha. Edward never tries to convince Jane to run off to Europe with him, and she leaves after telling him she loves him. Just as the carriage is out of sight (it is literally that fast), Edward is called back because Bertha has set fire to the house (we see her do it while Edward is chasing after Jane in the coach). She kills Grace Poole, she kills herself, and then Edward falls into the fire.
Next thing we see, Jane is in the carriage telling us she’s going to Gateshead to visit St John and Mary. I’m really not sure where this came from, except for the fact that she tells us that they were kind to her. Personally, I think it’s rather presumptuous and very un-Jane-like to do that, but what do I know? Anyway, this trip apparently takes several days, and she winds up in bed for a month. There’s no begging, no rainstorm, etc. Just exhaustion after being in the carriage. Once she’s up and about, St John tells her about her inheritance, and she offers some of it to the girls at Lowood (she also goes to Lowood and visits Helen’s grave), and to St John himself for his missionary work. She hears Edward calling her while she’s at Lowood, but she does nothing about it. St John asks her to marry him and she says she’ll think about it, but then all of a sudden she’s back in the carriage, headed for Thornfield.
Edward and Mrs. Fairfax are actually living in a part of Thornfield that sort of survived the fire. Jane tells Edward she’s there, they embrace, he gets his eyesight back and Adèle comes home from school to complete their little family. The End. See? Both unrecognizable and a mess.
So, while it wasn’t spectacularly bad in the MP99 mold, it was still worse than mediocre. JE34 and JE49 were unintentionally funny enough to make me forgive some their badness, but this one was not funny at all and it was not even entertaining. This was, in fact, rather dull. They took a story brimming with passion and turned it into a snooze-fest. I can safely say that I will never watch it again.