Classic literary adaptations on TV might be in short supply at the moment, but there are two feature film versions of the Brontës’ novels due for release in 2011 – a new Jane Eyre directed by Cary Fukunaga and a new Wuthering Heights directed by Andrea Arnold. I’d be more excited about adaptations of works which haven’t been brought to the screen so many times already – but, nevertheless, will look forward to seeing both of these, especially the new take on Jane Eyre, as it is one of my favourite novels and I’ve reread it many times over the years. I loved the Sandy Welch version with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson, which I hope to re-watch and review soon, but am always game for a new version too.
Seeing the trailer for the new Jane Eyre reminded me that I hadn’t yet got round to watching the most recent feature film version, from 1996, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, although I bought the DVD some time back. (I didn’t see it on release because my children were small then and it was hard to get out to the cinema.) I’ve now watched this one and have rather mixed feelings about it – my main problem being, perhaps surprisingly, that it felt too reined-in and not passionate enough. I have always remembered the sensuous romance of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and I suppose I expected something of the same atmosphere in this adaptation – but this is a far quieter film, with much of the emotion kept so far beneath the surface that it all but vanishes.
Of course, there is the usual difficulty with cramming a long novel into a single film, that a lot has to be left out. Screenwriters Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore have made many of the same cuts to the story as Kay Mellor did in her TV movie version the following year – truncating the opening scenes of childhood and Jane’s years in Lowood, and also cutting back her escape from Thornfield and time with St John Rivers to just a few minutes. I know it is important to keep the focus on Jane and Rochester, but it still seems a shame to lose quite so much.
However, despite being severely cut back, the childhood section does work very well and was probably my favourite part of the film – much to my surprise, as in other versions I’m usually keen to get through this part and on to Thornfield! Anna Paquin, who won an Oscar for her role in Jane Campion’s The Piano three years earlier, is brilliant as the young Jane, and full of the passion which is muted in the rest of the film. There’s only a brief glimpse of the red room, but her expression of terror says it all. Then she puts the character’s independence of spirit across vividly in the scenes where she answers the Rev Brocklehurst (John Wood) back, both in front of her aunt and then again at the school. Both Brocklehurst and Aunt Reed (Fiona Shaw) are quieter in this adaptation than in others I’ve seen, maintaining a veneer of politeness and apparently hiding the knowledge of their cruelty to Jane even from themselves. This makes the scene where they condemn her as a liar and decide to send her to Lowood even more chilling. It is all so polite and apparently reasonable, a decision taken over tea and cake.
The key scene where Jane stands on the stool wearing a placard is there – but there is also another striking scene added in, based on an incident in the book where Mr Brocklehurst orders a pupil with naturally curly red hair to have it all cut off, claiming it is evidence of vanity. In this film, it is Helen (Leanne Rowe) who has the red curls, and the clergyman himself dramatically cuts her hair off in front of the other children – after seeing it loose while Jane is drawing Helen’s portrait. (She also later draws a portrait of Rochester, creating a parallel between the two people she loves the most.) The light is on Helen’s hair as it is shorn away, making it look like a golden halo. Jane’s hair is also cut off after she intervenes on Helen’s behalf – so the two girls share their martyrdom, as they later share Helen’s death scene. Another change from the book is that, in this version, the cruel teacher, Miss Scatcherd (Geraldine Chaplin) is the headmistress, with the kind Miss Temple (Amanda Root) below her in the pecking order – and so she can’t protect the girls even as much as she does in the novel.
After Helen’s death, the story moves forward and Charlotte Gainsbourg takes over the role of Jane. I must say she looks exactly how I’d always imagined the character, with a sort of pure, other-worldly quality about her – so that, when Rochester describes her as looking like a nun, it seems right. She also seems very young – she was actually 25 but it is easy to believe she is only 18, and there is a large age gap between her and the 46-year-old William Hurt as Rochester.
Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which has also been used in other Jane Eyre adaptations, makes a beautiful setting for Thornfield, and there are some lovely scenes of Dame Joan Plowright, as Mrs Fairfax, showing Jane round the building. I have to say Plowright makes a very grand, aristocratic Mrs Fairfax, and it is quite hard to believe that she is a housekeeper rather than the mistress of Thornfield. She does seem to have rather a lot of screen time given the cuts which have had to be made to other aspects of the story – I see the latest version will have another Dame, Judi Dench, as Mrs Fairfax, so it may well be that the same thing will happen in the new adaptation! While Dame Joan is a constant presence, however, Billie Whitelaw only has one or two lines as Grace Poole, which seems a bit of a waste.
I was looking forward to seeing William Hurt’s take on Rochester, because he is an actor I’ve always liked since seeing his moving performance in The Accidental Tourist. I knew he would be very different from Ciaran Hinds in the 1997 Jane Eyre, because, where Hinds plays Rochester in explosive, ebullient style, it’s Hurt’s key quality to keep his emotion reined in, burning under the surface. However, I have to say that in this film I think he probably reins it in too much – there is only the occasional glimpse of any passion, and it doesn’t help that there are so few conversations between Jane and Rochester. In the novel they are always talking as they fall in love – but in this version they are rather a silent couple, with looks having to do the work of words, and most of the humour that they share is also lost. There is at least one scene where I thought Rochester’s silence works very well, though – Adele (Josephine Serre) is singing and dancing in the way that her mother did, and he is standing in the shadows watching and remembering, with most of him in darkness and just his melancholy face lit up in a reddish glow. The lighting is striking throughout this film – in one scene, where Jane is teaching Adele to draw, she tells her: “Remember, the shadows are just as important as the light.”
Unfortunately, many of the key scenes of the couple’s courtship do seem rushed to pack them into the film’s 112-minute running time. There are only brief glimpses of Blanche Ingram, played by supermodel turned actress Elle Macpherson – at least one poster for the film ludicrously features Hurt and Macpherson, with Gainsbourg nowhere to be seen! The preparations for the wedding also pass in a couple of minutes – though the wedding itself, and the aftermath where Rochester takes them all to meet his wife, are well done. Bertha is played by Maria Schneider, who has long, heavy dark hair similar to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s, and also wears a long white dress, so there is almost a feeling of Jane looking at herself in a distorting mirror.
Jane’s departure after the abortive wedding is rushed, with Rochester hardly given any time to plead for her to stay – and the whole Gothic plot element of her wandering around, starving, until she collapses is completely removed. In this version, Jane decides to go and stay with St John Rivers because she’d already met him earlier as her aunt’s vicar! It might be more realistic than the wild coincidences of the novel, but I feel that something vitally important has been lost as we never see Jane desperate and hungry – or rebuilding her life under another name. A very young Samuel West plays St John, giving him much more sensitivity than the character has had in other versions I’ve seen. Here, I thought the proposal could easily give the impression that he is really in love with Jane, especially as there is no sign of Rosamond in this version. Rather than ordering her to marry him as a sacred duty, he humbly makes the suggestion, saying he will be content with her affection rather than her love – and his missionary work is only mentioned in passing. St John also has just one sister here, again as in the later Kay Mellor version. This seems a shame to me as I always think that through the sisterhood between Diana and Mary in their remote country area we glimpse a little of what life would have been like for the Brontës themselves .
The happy ending is poignant, as it always is, with Rochester discovering it is Jane by feeling her hands “Her very fingers!” – but even this is rushed over, with the very minimum of dialogue between the two before we are glimpsing them two years later, with Gainsbourg’s voiceover telling of their married bliss. It’s almost the case that Rochester is blinded one minute and has his sight back the next.
All in all, I did enjoy aspects of this production, and I especially like Anna Paquin and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane, but I don’t think I’m likely to go back to it as much as I will to the Kay Mellor or Sandy Welch versions, because it feels too rushed and leaves too much out. The Kay Mellor version is about the same length but manages to keep a lot more of the central love story and the key emotions.