What I’m Watching: Jane Eyre (1996)

I broke down the other night and watched the 1996, Franco Zeffirelli version of Jane Eyre starring William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg.  I’ve been in a girl-movie mood lately, which I am attributing in large part to a serious jones for Downton Abbey (come on, January 6th!).  As I have already gone into the story behind Jane Eyre elsewhere I will spare you the storyline.  Instead, I want to talk about the highlights.  The lowlights.  The nolights.  Of this particular adaptation.

Sure, yes, you’re probably thinking that it’s hard to argue with Franco Zeffirelli, right?  He’s only one of the world’s most renowned directors, who gave the world Romeo & Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew and the 1990 Mel Gibson Hamlet, which is quite probably the very last thing Mel Gibson did that I could stand him in before he went barking mad.  But he also gave the world Endless Love and so he can make mistakes.  And a mistake he has made indeed, because in all earnestness and with the full knowledge of the heft of the talent involved, I respectfully give this movie the finger.

On the positive side, some of the actors look incredibly right.  William Hurt as Rochester looks appropriately beaten down by life, and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Jane is quite plain and unassuming.  Geraldine Chaplin plays a wonderfully repressed/slightly evil Nurse Ratched Miss Scatcherd, which I’m not sure is that much of a compliment.  John Wood stands out in his performance as the squeamishly repulsive Mr. Brocklehurst, and when you look and look and look at him and wonder, where have I seen that guy before?  Let me ease your mind.  He was the horrible, creepy bishop in Ladyhawke who put the curse on that nice couple, Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer.  This guy:

Ahhh, now you remember him, right?
Photo courtesy http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/tag/ladyhawke

For the record, Ladyhawke had, in all likelihood, the worst soundtrack of all time.  Should you choose to listen, go about a minute in for the true assault on your ears to begin.  And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

ANYWAY.  Back to Jane.

Some of the actors, unfortunately, were really wrong.  I hated Anna Paquin as the young Jane, though I feel like that was more the fault of the direction rather having anything to do with her ability to execute a successful performance.  She is supposed to be strong, yes, and outwardly “defiant”, but that was due to her keenly developed sense of integrity and internal worth despite her unfortunate circumstances, not because she was busy being bratty.  There were one too many eyerolls and hips cocked to one side to excuse as a momentary lapse in directorial judgment; were Jane Eyre to be set in the modern world that would have been OK but in 1840s England?  Not so much.  I wanted to love-hate Fiona Shaw as the horrible Aunt Reed but she was a little too over-the-top.  I think she was saving up all of her dead-sibling-unwilling-guardian mojo to play Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter series.  Joan Plowright (a/k/a the Baroness Olivier) is totally wrong as Mrs. Fairfax.  She’s just doughy and frumpy, and normally I really like Joan Plowright.  I mean, it’s hard to not like Dame Joan Plowright.  It’s like not liking Dame Judi Dench; when her performance fails, there’s a bigger problem at hand.

As for the leads, William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg may have looked right, but they sounded terrible.  Hurt, who was amazing in A History of Violence, was really, profoundly uncomfortable with the language in Jane Eyre and couldn’t make it his own.  The famous, “I have a string tied here under my left rib where my heart is, tightly knotted to you in a similar fashion” speech, which is usually girl-movie-swoon-worthy, gave my skin the crawlies.  And Charlotte Gainsbourg was kind of Europe’s “It Girl” at the time, having won Cesar awards (basically, the French Oscar) as “Most Promising Actress” and “Best Supporting Actress” before being cast as Jane.  But she was raised in Paris and had a residual French accent that would not let itself be entirely masked.  It would resurface every so often, most notably during emotion-laden scenes.  Was nobody listening?  Didn’t anyone pay attention?  It. Made. Me. Crazy.

I think the aforementioned bigger problem was this: the production team chose star power over propriety of casting or cohesive storytelling, or adherence to the book.  The fire at Thornfield starts while Jane is leaving?  What?  Young Jane gets her hair cut with Helen in defiance of Mr. Brocklehurst?  What?  St. John is her aunt’s pastor and not a distant relative, AND only has one sister?  What?  And so on, and so on.  I know it’s a complicated story.  I understand when movies have to make allowances of time, or short-change one aspect of a story; the Orson Welles version of Jane Eyre, for example, completely jettisons the St. John part of the story.  But it does so in order to spend time with the rest of the story, which then compensates for what’s missing.  This version just hammers through everything–it rushes her time at Lowood, it rushes through her romance with Rochester, it rushes through her final meeting with Aunt Reed, through her entire year with St. John, through her return to Rochester.  And as the final kicker, when she returns to Thornfield she doesn’t even do so because she mystically hears Rochester calling to her soul through space and time; instead, she moseys on back because she doesn’t want to marry St. John.

Whatev.  Way to kill the idea of being tied together at the core of their beings.  If you need to watch it, make sure you’ve got knitting handy to keep yourself occupied.  OR, dial it up to stream and watch John Wood’s performance, and then call it a day.  If you want to watch Jane Eyre and can only ever devote two hours to it, watch the Orson Welles 1943 version.  If you can spare four hours, go for Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson (2006).  But this one?  No.

Unless you get a chance to watch this very special interpretation of the William Hurt-Charlotte Gainsbourg Jane Eyre, which is still my favorite Netflix error of all time.

Thank you for this, Netflix.

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What I’m Watching: Jane Eyre (2006)

Hey, kids!  Who wants to watch a costume drama that’s a BBC-TV adaptation of a Victorian-era British romance novel???

{{insert sounds of crickets chirping}}

Erm…hmmmm…

OK.

Hey, kids!  Who wants to watch a movie that explores:

Dysfunctional families

Illegitimacy

Sex

Betrayal

Homicidal madness

Dark family secrets

Unrequited love

Features a strong, intelligent, independent female lead

And does all this while the ladies run around in corsets?

Well.  That’s better.


The BBC did an adaptation of Jane Eyre in 2006 that is all those things and more.  It is lush.  It is gorgeous.  The acting is as near-flawless as you can ask for.  And here’s the thing: I am both an old movie junkie and secretly crush on the young Orson Welles, so the hopes I held were few that this adaptation could touch the 1943, Welles/Joan Fontaine version.May I just say…Touched.I’ve read some of the criticism of this particular version.  Most of the reviews were overwhelmingly positive; it stays close to the storyline of the book, there are minimal “made for BBC-TV moments.”  Of course, we’ve come to expect some sort of storyline manipulation in filmmaking—I even read a review of a movie made about the Bronte sisters in 1945 that took issue with the filmmaker’s cavalier approach towards historical accuracy.  But these are movies, not documentaries…and in the case of this version of Jane Eyre, it’s an interpretation of a fictional story, done 150 years after the book was originally published.  One person said that in an effort to give it more modern appeal, they sexed it up, and turned it into “Charlotte Bronte meets Harlequin Romance”.  To that person I say, get over it, Puritan.  Jane and Rochester were scorchingly in love with each other, and even in Victorian England, folks were getting their freaks on.  People from the Victorian Era sent their beloveds secret messages coded in floral arrangements, and did their fair share of erotic writing; sex was never far from anyone’s mind.  And really, take another look at the book—once they get engaged, Jane and Rochester make out all over the place.

So with that being said, what makes this version as good—for me—as the Orson Welles version?  Primarily, I like Jane better.  Much is made of Jane’s appearance throughout the book—she is little, she is plain, she is elfin, Rochester even calls her his “mustard seed”.  Affectionately, of course.  Yes, really.  And the 2006 Jane has a quirky look that feels more true to how Jane would have looked (not that Ruth Wilson can’t smoke it up in real life).  You can dress Joan Fontaine down in unadorned frocks that cover her from neck to toe and you still won’t be able to escape the fact that she’s the elegant, slightly haughty Joan Fontaine.

Joan Fontaine

Ruth Wilson

As for Rochester, it’s hard to tear yourself away from Orson “Mr. Brooding Intensity” Welles, but Toby Stephens gives him a run for the money.  He’s not quite as intense as Welles, but making that comparison is sort of like saying the moon is not quite as bright as the sun.  Few actors come near that intensity.  Instead, Toby Stephens brings out the vulnerability in Rochester that is woven through the storyline of the book but gets lost in Welles’s personal bombast.  And one of my favorite scenes in the new film is when we see Rochester’s insane wife in her tower room; in the 1943 version, we only see her hands, when she makes a raving-mad and screaming lunge towards Jane and of course, the audience hates her instantly.  In the 2006 version, she still lunges after Jane but first, we see her placid and beautiful, and when her madness wells up you find new understanding and sympathy for both her plight and Rochester’s.  It’s a short but impressive moment, and covers a lot of ground in a brief period of time.

Orson Welles

Toby Stephens

Georgie Henley, having a bad day.

If she can't get the Pevensie girl, no one should.

The 1943 version features a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane’s best friend, Helen, so that’s sort of fun.  The 2006 version features  Georgie Henley as childhood Jane, and even though by the end of The Chronicles of Narnia I was hoping Tilda Swinton and the polar bears would win, it was hard in   this movie to watch little Lucy Pevensie get knocked around by the hateful Aunt Reed and family.  The Welles version is only 97 minutes long, so the plot point that fuels the last third of the book is jettisoned and other points of the story are rearranged to provide a refuge for Jane when she leaves Rochester.  The 2006 version has a running time of 202 minutes, so the St. John part of the story is restored and the timeline of the book remains pretty well intact.

And here is my confession: between the 1943 Orson Welles version and the 2006 version?  Much to my surprise, I like 2006 better.  I didn’t think it could be done and yet, such is the truth.

Watch this if:

You like costume dramas.

You have 202 minutes to spare, somewhere along the line (it is broken into four episodes, you know).

You like stories involving orphans.

Movies from 1943 don’t really do it for you.

You like stories about homicidal wives in towers.

Don’t watch this if:

Corsets are not your thing.

You see no reason for a movie to go any longer than 97 minutes.

You are a black & white purist.

You only like movies where shit blows up good.

You’ve got no problem with a little betrayal among family members.

And finally…when I was on Netflix looking at the many and various adaptations of Jane Eyre, I noticed what can only be a computer glitch, as the totally wrong synopsis appeared for the 1996 version…unless, of course, there is a sequel to Jane Eyre which is something like Jane Eyre: Code Name: Governess.

Something seems somewhat amiss...

I’m not sure when she begins her career as a spy; perhaps among the things she inherits from her long-lost uncle is a secret decoder ring?

UPDATE:  The 2011 version with Mia Wasikowska?  It’s so not very good.  I never believe her as Jane, and Michael Fassbender as Rochester is neither compelling nor interesting.

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