Film Scouts Reviews

"Jane Eyre"

by Karen Jaehne

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New York, March 22, 1996

Screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Franco Zeffirelli, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Cinematography by David Watkin. Production Design by Roger Hall. Music by Alessio Vlad & Claudio Capponi.

Starring William Hurt (Rochester), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Jane Eyre), Joan Plowright (Mrs. Fairfax), Anna Paquin (the young Jane), Geraldine Chaplin (Miss Scatcherd), Billie Whitelaw (Grace Poole), Maria Schneider (Bertha), Amanda Root (Miss Temple).

From hooker to housewife is America's Cinderella fantasy. The British, however, fantasize about going from governess to duchess. From Charlotte Bronte to Mary Poppins, the nanny seems to lead from the Downstairs to the Upstairs. Jane Eyre is probably the seminal figure in the triumph of the professional over the debutante.

The incurably romantic Franco Zefferelli (who once filmed a heartbreakingly realistic "Romeo and Juliet" with 14-year-olds) has brought Jane Eyre to the screen with a perfect piece of casting: Charlotte Gainsbourg who demonstrated an impressive sang froid in "The Little Thief." Gainsbourg does not appeal to us with cosmetics; she does not flirt surreptitiously with the audience; she has none of those annoying habits of actresses playing downtrodden females. She is perfect as Jane Eyre, because her only possession is dignity.

Written 150 years ago by a sometime English governess Charlotte Bronte, "Jane Eyre" is a story of an orphaned girl, cast out for being more intelligent than her "betters." She becomes self-reliant as a governess, she is unobtrusive but persistent in love and, in the end, gets very lucky when she inherits a fortune from a long-lost uncle. She is the perfect romantic heroine. (She is the reason girls think that maybe, just maybe, those aren't their real parents!)

Bronte's experience both as a student-sent with her 3 sisters to such a school by her preacher-papa-and as a nanny is packed into this movie. In a letter she wrote (also 150 years ago), Miss Bronte complained, "Imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me" being thrown into "a set of pampered spoilt and turbulent children."

The opening sequence is in a Dickensian girls school, where Geraldine Chaplin snarls at the girls and Amanda Root teaches them to rise above their fate as future governesses. Here Anna Paquin (Oscar for "The Piano") plays the young Jane and establishes the character as an innately fair-minded creature. What appeals to us about Jane Eyre today is her modern ambition to rise on her own merit.

Even if William Hurt sweeps in as the arrogant and impossible Rochester, whom Jane loves in spite of her- and himself, we know that it is her independence that will carry her through-and save the empire, if it must be saved! Hurt turns Rochester into a far more complex character than the novel offers: he demonstrates self-irony as well as selflessness, and it's hard not to like him, even if he is blinkered by his upper-class perspective.

After seeing Jane Austen filmed within an inch of her literary life, after seeing all these movies about British history-including "Rob Roy" and "Braveheart"-we can't help but ask why these stories are appealing to us. Is it because class is becoming a major factor in American culture? As we become more polarized, stratified and class-conscious, we look back for ways to justify it-fabulous manors like Thornfield Hall in "Jane Eyre" or the dedication of the butler in "Remains of the Day." All these lovely films about the "Haves" and the "Have-Mores" help us detect the pitfalls and the passions of a divided society. And sustain our hopes for a White Knight.

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