In her 1847 masterpiece, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë narrated the story of the pale, plain, independent-minded governess and her broody soul mate, Mr. Rochester, in the first person and addressed her audience directly as ”Reader.” That way, she gave her story — so Dickensian in its unflinching depiction of childhood privation and misery, so forward thinking in its presentation of a woman in the free exercise of her own will — a confessional warmth that has attracted Readers for more than a century. In Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre, the newest film adaptation of Bronte’s much-staged story (there have been three other Eyre films, including the 1944 classic starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine), the director (who cowrote the screenplay with Hugh Whitemore) gets the Dickensian gloom down pat but stints on the artless intimacy needed to fully thaw an otherwise icy gothic yarn.
The result is an odd Jane indeed: a saga shot in drab tones of brown, black, and gray; even the gorgeous gardens look damp. It’s an Eyre that sweeps through big dramatic events — Jane’s miserable years at a cruel charity school, her arrival as a governess at the great house called Thornfield Hall, her fateful meeting with the master of the house, the fire from which she rescues him, the confession of his Dark Secrets, another fire, the couple’s singular romance — without inviting much emotional involvement. To fill the time, then, what we do is stare in fascination at Jane.
Or, rather, both Janes. The young girl who is sent by her hateful relatives to have her spirit broken at a stingy orphanage is played, with energy and intelligence, by Anna Paquin, the young Oscar winner from The Piano, who looks grave and beautiful. The older Jane is taken on by Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Cement Garden), one of those underdiscovered-actress choices (remember Olivia Hussey in his Romeo and Juliet?) for whom Zeffirelli is known. Gainsbourg is the possessor of a somber face, a mysteriously inflected voice (she’s French, the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French musician Serge Gainsbourg), and an extraordinary neck that appears to be about a yard long, giving her small dark head the appearance of a pecan on a stalk. Leaning toward her Mr. Rochester (played, with relative restraint, by William Hurt) or conversing with the kindly housekeeper (Joan Plowright, doing one of her classic Plowrights, i.e., a senior citizen with shining eyes), Gainsbourg stretches out in a posture of vulnerability, and you think, Wow, what a neck. Which is something, Reader, you probably never thought when reading the original. B-