Franco Zeffirelli's new movie, Jane Eyre (based on Charlotte Brontë's novel), is in many ways strikingly similar to last year's Sense and Sensibility (directed by Ang Lee from Emma Thompson's adaptation of the Jane Austen novel): a bucolic England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution; a tough, intelligent woman of reduced circumstances, trying to make her way in a society that holds women, and people of reduced circumstances, as inferiors.
But Jane Eyre is darker, more violent and melodramatic than Sense — in large measure because Brontë is not the equal of Austen as a writer. Sense and Sensibility is a drawing-room comedy full of sharply observed ironies and subtle depth, while Jane Eyre is a Gothic romance chockablock with terrifying schoolmasters, seemingly haunted houses, and mysterious murder attempts in the rustling night. If Austen is fine champagne — deceptively light, astringent, sparkling — then Brontë is like a leather flask of new red: a little primitive and crude, her effects not very subtle, but drawing on a powerful and genuine emotional wellspring.
Jane Eyre, in fact, is both period piece and tear-jerker. It's beautifully made and shamelessly manipulative. It also benefits from the presence of William Hurt as the guarded, troubled Mr. Rochester; he pulls off the almost unheard-of feat (for an American actor) of seeming natural and unself-conscious in his English accent. It's almost like discovering that Hurt has a twin brother who was raised in England.
Zeffirelli joins Lee in successfully casting an outsider's eye on England. There is a certain lack of restraint in the direction that suits the occasionally garish material; perhaps the director's un-Englishness, his distance from the dizzyingly fine nuances of British social life, enables him to find and render the emotional turbulence that squirms and twists just beneath all those neatly clipped manners.
There's enough emotional energy in Jane Eyre alone to drive the entire film. She's a little orphan girl who, having worn out a hostile welcome at a relative's, is shipped off to a grim boarding school called Lowood, whose chief educational mission seems to be to snuff out any sign of independence in young girls.
Little Jane (played in these early scenes by a button-faced Anna Paquin) of course has too much life, too much intellect, to fit comfortably into such colorless surroundings. She's also not meek, and her bluntness attracts the unfavorable attention of Mr. Brocklehurst (John Wood), the nasty man with mutton-chop whiskers who runs the school. But she manages to survive, and even to become a teacher herself.
By the time she's a young woman (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), she has become striking if not quite beautiful, her chin jutting out and up like the prow of a ship. She takes a job as governess at Fairfax House, a castellated, slightly brooding country estate presided over by Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright), who's friendly enough but a little cagey — about the master of the house, for one thing, and some of the strange goings-on at night.
The cinematography isn't exactly gloomy, but the movie does look persistently twilit and faintly autumnal (as opposed to Sense, whose aura was distinctly springlike). Zeffirelli likes, in particular, to photograph Fairfax House in fading daylight, as the shadows of the towers and turrets lengthen and the air grows a little chilly. The house isn't quite scary, but things are not right there, either.
For one thing, the earnest young governess and the strangely melancholy Mr. Rochester (who has shown up unexpectedly — and stays on, equally unexpectedly) begin to fall obliquely, and inconveniently, in love. Rochester is a master of dry self-tweaking: He aims his little barbs first at Jane then at himself, as a ritual of joining. His deadpan delivery often leaves the people around him scratching their heads, because they're not certain if he's furious with them or just having a bit of fun.
His history, like Jane's, is mostly an unhappy one, and like her, he has encased himself in a shell of eccentric personality to protect him from further worldly insult. Each seems immediately to sense this defensive quality in the other, and the mutuality of woundedness quickly opens into a strong attraction.
But Rochester's past griefs are far more convoluted than Jane's. She's just a commoner; he's a landed gentleman for whom virtually every social act — including marriage — has a deep dynastic resonance. She may be poor, but at least she's socially unencumbered; he's trapped like a fly in a sticky web of social privilege, and all his money — and more — will not buy his freedom.
It becomes plain, in watching such movies as Jane Eyre and Sense and Sensibility, why British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries were so obsessed with the fine points of love, and why they so often set up love as the force of light and good against the crushing expectations of social convention: It's because Victorian England gave its citizens, especially women, too little freedom to express their natural emotions and passions. Love must triumph in Victorian fiction because it so seldom did in the strict forms of Victorian life. A natural affinity between two people — the unquestioned basis of modern marriage — was easily overwhelmed by economic and class considerations.
Surely few would-be lovers have been as far apart socially and economically as Jane Eyre and Rochester. There's a brutal scene toward the end of the film in which partying peers dismiss the entire class of governesses as distasteful parasites, not fully human, certainly not “worthy.”
As that scene suggests, the whole romance between Jane and Rochester ought to be hopeless, but Charlotte Brontë is nothing if not second-rate, and for such writers, hope never dies. The last third of the movie is a breathless acceleration into the maudlin, with madwomen locked in closets, pyromania, deathbed confessions, and lost treasure regained — enough plot for several movies, but none of it, alas, much good. If Jane Eyre earns its tears, it's because the chemistry between Hurt and Gainsbourg is wistfully real, a glint of genuine poignance in a confused heap of sentiment.
Jane Eyre opens Fri, April 12, at the Clay in S.F. and the Act One/Two in Berkeley.