Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // 1996 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 23rd, 2011
The passionate tale of forbidden secrets!
In my review of Cary Fukanaga's 2011 version of Jane Eyre, I referred to Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 version of the tale as "compelling." Upon revisiting it after quite a few years, I can once again confirm that "compelling" is an accurate descriptor. However, I was quite disappointed to discover that I was compelled for entirely different reasons this time around: Zeffirelli's version of the tale comes perilously close to serving as a course on how not to adapt Jane Eyre.
Odds are you know the story. The first portion of the film follow young Jane Eyre (Anna Paquin, True Blood) as she attempts to survive a particularly ruthless boarding school. When she grows older (and is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist), she accepts a job as a governess. Her employer is the troubled Mr. Rochester (William Hurt, The Accidental Tourist), who initially regards Jane with icy curiosity. However, as time passes, Jane and Rochester find themselves growing close to each other. Alas, Jane doesn't know about the skeletons in Rochester's closet.
Jane Eyre is a tremendously atmospheric piece of gothic literature, but this element of the tale clearly didn't interest Zeffirelli too much. Frequently, he stages the film in the same manner one might stage a Jane Austen adaptation; there are entirely too many scenes of sunlit warmth. It's surprising to see the director neglecting this particular area, since he did such a fine job of bringing a memorably drab sense of atmosphere to his vibrant, lean version of Hamlet (starring Mel Gibson as an entertainingly frisky version of the famously gloomy character).
Speaking of which, it's also quite a surprise to discover how flat the director's screenplay (co-written with Hugh Whitehead) is. In his Shakespearean adaptations (which also include the jovial The Taming of the Shrew and the passionate Romeo and Juliet), Zeffirelli has demonstrated a knack for transforming dense, difficult works into tight, easily digestible entertainments without sacrificing their integrity. Alas, in this case the cuts are painful (despite the fact that similar cuts were made in Fukanaga's far more satisfying version) and the filmmaking is uninspired.
Gainsbourg does a decent job in the title role, but has struggle conveying Jane's numerous internal struggles over the course of the film. She's grown considerably as an actress over the years, but her relative inexperience shows on numerous occasions in this film. Meanwhile, William Hurt just seems dramatically out of place as Rochester. Hurt is a fantastic actor, but also rather easy to miscast. In the right role, he can persuade us that no one else could possibly have handled it so well. In the wrong role, he can suggest that almost anyone else would have been better. Jane Eyre is the latter, as Hurt plows into his lines with a silly British accent, a foppish demeanor and a distinct lack of gravitas. There's none of the intense smolder which Orson Welles and Michael Fassbender brought to the role.
Even if this were the definitive version of Jane Eyre (which it most assuredly isn't), I wouldn't dream of recommending this DVD. The transfer is mediocre, offering very poor detail and quite a few scratches and flecks. Audio is also rough, with a few moments of bad dubbing and generally pinched sound. Even worse, this is a non-anamorphic disc, which is absolutely inexcusable. Adding insult to injury, the disc menu is an image from the film with a large, garish, neon green "Play" button superimposed over it. Obviously, "Play" is the only option you have; there are no subtitles, chapters or supplements to dig through.
Basically, all the news is bad news: Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre is a weak adaptation of the story (and one of the director's weakest films), William Hurt is badly miscast as Rochester and the DVD release is simply awful.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG