Charlotte Brontë‘s novel is one of the most compelling narrative of C19th English literature and it has enjoyed numerous adaptations. This version is a pan-European, trans-Atlantic production with the adult Jane played by Charlotte Gainsbourg [France], the young Jane by Anna Paquin [Canada], Edward Rochester by William Hurt [USA], and a German Shepherd cross as Pilot; they are supported by other European actors and a bevy of British character actors, including at least two born in Yorkshire [Edward de Souza as Richard Mason and Peter Woodthorpe as Briggs]. The production crew equally hail from a number of European countries, the production company Rochester Films worked in association with Miramax; all is presided over by the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli
The film follows the book fairly faithfully for much of its 112 minutes running time. The famous ‘red room’ sequence precedes the opening titles. Then we meet the young Jane in full rebellion against her aunt Mrs Reed (Fiona Shaw) and the sanctimonious Mr Brocklehurst (John Wood). The sequences at Lowood school capture the oppressive nature of the establishment and add some distinctive touches to the school routine and the friendship between Jane and Helen Burns (Leanne Rowe]. A fine edit takes us the Thornfield, the friendly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Joan Plowright), the young pupil Adele (Josephine Serre) and the master Edward Rochester.
Gainsbourg is excellent as the heroine; her accent is mostly good and she presents the steely nature of Jane’s character. Hurt offers a lower key Rochester than in other versions, taciturn but also repressed. Schneider’s Bertha is haunted rather than manic. Billie Whitelaw as Grace Poole cares for her. And Elle Macpherson as Blanche Ingram is all haughty beauty.
All this plotting at Lowood and Thornfield is very effective. Whilst the narrative represents that of Jane in the novel, there is only limited use of voice-over and indeed there are scenes that Jane does not see or recount. When St John Rivers (Samuel West) appears the film diverges markedly from the novel. I wondered if this was to reduce the ‘long arm of coincidence’ for which the book is noted: if so it introduces equal co-incidents of its own. It is likely that this aimed to reduce the complexity and length of the novel’s plot, but the final drama does seem a little rushed.
The film was scripted by Zeffirelli with Hugh Whitemore. Whitemore has an extensive background in screen writing including a television version of ‘Rebecca’, Daphne du Maurier’s novel infused with the spirit of ‘Jane Eyre’. The script uses much of the familiar dialogue from the book and other film versions and, apart from the changes, works well. The production design by Roger Hall has a strong sense of early Victorian style and colour. What stands out is the cinematography by David Watkins [in colour and standard widescreen], assisted by David Browne with the second unit. The interiors often use chiaroscuro and at times there is a definite Gothic feel to the image. The exteriors, shot at a Derbyshire stately home but also on a Yorkshire location, add visual pleasure to the film. The editing by Richard Marden, as noted, has some fine transitions. The music is generally restrained, only rising on the track at moments of high drama and moments of transition. It is by Alessio Vlad, Claudio Capponi and Stefano Arnaldi. This is a film that works even if you are not familiar with the original novel: there are such readers? And for those familiar with Brontë‘s master-work there is sufficient of the novel to offer the pleasure of a revisiting. There is the added attraction of a screening of the film in its original format 35mm.