Shadows and light

Zeffirelli meticulously recycles the goof-proof romance Jane Eyre

Even so, this version of Jane Eyre makes some puzzling decisions. Twice Rochester calls Jane "unearthly," but in fact the exact opposite is true. Jane palpably is a creature of this world, a very real human suffering from psychic torment. It is an unintentional critique of Rochester's detachment from reality that he considers someone as overwhelmingly earthy as Jane ethereal, while the superdeveloped beauty of Elle MacPherson strikes him as normal and ordinary.

In part, that's a result of the casting of off-putting William Hurt. Hurt cuts a different, weaker silhouette than Welles did in the original. Welles' entrance in that film was one of his greatest: emerging from a dense fog on horseback, rearing his horse menacingly, and being thrown to the ground. By comparison, Zeffirelli stages the same scene with little energy. (As a rule, Zeffirelli covers most of the plot points without much enthusiasm.) Welles and Hurt both have a patrician demeanor, but there was always a touch of the rascal to Welles, even when he was playing an aristocrat. Hurt, on the other hand, seems reserved and banal. I don't know if Hurt saw Welles' performance, but while he makes the role his own, what he doesn't do is make it compelling.

The performances by Gainsbourg, Paquin, and Joan Plowright (as Mrs. Fairfax) are better. The actors seem comfortable maneuvering through the labyrinthine plot. Maybe it's because they give themselves over to the mood willingly--or maybe it's because they aren't reduced to being the center of the most thankless scene in the film: the revelation of the Big Secret, explained with such lurching awkwardness that it slams the brakes on the momentum the story was able to muster until then. In the end, it doesn't make much difference why the performances--or the film itself--come together; it just matters that everything does work, and so well.

Jane Eyre. Miramax Films. William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joan Plowright, Anna Paquin. Written by Hugh Whitemore and Franco Zeffirelli. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Opens April 12.

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