Jane Eyre
directed by Franco Zeffirelli
(Miramax, 1996)

If there's one thing Jane Eyre learns in her struggle to be an artist, it's that the shadows are as important as the light.

It's a lesson not lost on director Franco Zeffirelli, whose arduous task it was to bring Charlotte Bronte's brooding novel of not-so-merry old England to the screen for the third or fourth or fifth time, depending on how you count.

Zeffirelli, who's best remembered for his exuberant 1968 remake of Romeo & Juliet, takes a 180-degree turn in Jane Eyre, delivering a film of muted tones and muted performances, a stark contrast to both his earlier work and the black & white Eyre Hollywood aired more than 50 years ago.

In that earlier version, Joan Fontaine is the orphan Jane, whose malevolent aunt sends her to Lowood, a charity school run by people who know little about charity.

She survives, despite the efforts of her teachers, and takes a position as governess at Thornfield, one of those moor-bound English estates that harbors more secrets than Navy Intelligence.

There she learns that men of fortune are rarely fortunate men, at least in Bronte novels, and that her own boss, Mr. Rochester (Orson Welles in the 1944 version), is no exception.

This time around it falls to Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt to bring Bronte's star-crossed lovers to life, and they both fare well, though Gainsbourg somewhat weller than Hurt.

That could be partly because Gainsbourg has the face to give us Eyre: a pale complexion to mask the colorful world within, an inverted "W" of a mouth that takes nearly two hours to turn into a crooked smile, burning eyes which reveal the passion beneath her strapped-down surface.

Hurt, complete with mutton chops and a trace of an English accent, handles the twists and turns of Rochester's tortured personality, but has trouble emerging from Welles' shadow, if only because he lacks the rumble in the throat that gives Welles his authority.

The result is more subtle, if less memorable performance -- a more vulnerable Rochester, but one that captures too little of Rochester's desire to return to the world of feelings.

John Wood is a solid, if uninspired, Mr. Brocklehurst, head of Lowood School, where cleanliness is next to godliness, but most of the students would gladly risk the fires of hell if only for the heat.

And Anna Paquin, for her part, manages an excellent, if understated, turn as young Jane, condemned to live out the dreadful irony of being branded a liar because she insists on telling unpleasant truths.

Zeffirelli, too, turns in an excellent performance. His remake lacks the quick pacing that gives its forerunner a sense of urgency, but his willingness to linger over images imbues the film with Eyre's sense of timeless patience (Don't miss Eyre and Rochester, wrapped in shadows, their faces intercut across a hearth-lit room).

At the same time, the script retains much of the carefully honed shadings of Bronte's dialogue that would be lost in a more rapid-fire approach.

And unlike his predecessor, Zeffirelli takes us right into the blazing castle for the sizzling climax.

I keep a copy of the 1944 version on my tape shelf, in part to help me remember how well Hollywood could do things, and in part just because I love watching Welles be Welles.

But I have no trouble telling people to go out and rent Zeffirelli's remake -- anytime they want a bit of fresh Eyre.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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