Shadows and light

The original screen version of Jane Eyre, released in 1944--with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, both at the height of their powers--is one of the minor masterpieces of the studio system's Golden Age. Like all the best Victorian pictures of the time (The Heiress, Gaslight, and others) the entire production had a sinister romanticism to it. With its protean mood swings, it could be at one moment triumphant; at the next, murky. The photography and decor, the script and direction and acting, were all so lush and intoxicating that no emotional peak or valley was further away than a sideways glance, a raised eyebrow, or a casual laugh. The party scenes, though filmed in black-and-white, had a flair of color about them, while the dark, cerebral halls of the manor were filled with unspoken dread--as a chilling, unexplained cackle echoed in the still night. The film was sort of creepy, sort of fanciful, but never, never dull. It would be a hard film to beat.

And in fact, one of the surprising things about the new version of Jane Eyre is that it actually benefits from familiarity with the originals, both film and novel. Knowing ahead of time what demons haunt all the characters doesn't make the film seem boring, but gives it a pleasant inevitability. That's often not the case; the recent Diabolique, for instance, compares so poorly to the French classic as to demean them both. The difference here is that Jane Eyre's director, Franco Zeffirelli, doesn't needlessly tinker with the essential elements of Charlotte Bronte's classic Victorian novel, but lets the authoress' solid plotting carry the story when he runs out of ideas to make it visually interesting.

The story is a high-school English staple, with scenes that sometimes suggest a female version of Oliver Twist. Jane (played as a small girl by Anna Paquin, and as a young adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is orphaned and left with her wicked stepmother. Jane is carted off to Lowood, a boarding school run with an iron hand. When she turns 18, Jane is put into service as a tutor to the ward of the mysterious landowner Edward Rochester (William Hurt). From then on, unrequited love, deeply buried secrets, and repressed sexual longings emerge as from a Henry James novel.

The book, written by the oldest of the spinsterly Bronte sisters when she was 30, is the sort of foolproof romantic melodrama that is so accommodating to the medium of film that even a gifted director couldn't ruin it. And if ever there were a director who could ruin it, it's Franco Zeffirelli.

Zeffirelli was a respected theater and opera director in Italy when, in the late 1960s, he ventured into filmmaking. With an output that was sporadic but singularly identifiable, Zeffirelli was either a victim or beneficiary of his films, depending on how well his style meshed with the projects he selected.

Two of his first films--The Taming of the Shrew with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and especially his impassioned, controversial version of Romeo and Juliet--set in motion a popular resurgence of interest in Shakespeare akin to the success recently enjoyed by Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen. Zeffirelli seemed to import to his films extravagant, colorful images straight from the proscenium at La Scala, and audiences responded to such splashy adaptations of what were perceived as dry classics. His approach to the Bard populist and scholarly: He sexed up the relationship between the doomed teen-aged lovers in Romeo and Juliet, and vulgarized the Burton-Taylor spats with bawdiness and dash while simultaneously remaining true to Shakespeare's text. He continued mounting larger-than-life productions in the 1980s when he filmed the operas Hamlet (with Mel Gibson), La Traviata, and Otello.

While opera and Shakespeare lend themselves easily to big emotions, Zeffirelli ran aground in the '70s when he was unable to adapt to the more intimate moments film demands. His technique seemed sentimental and hammy in The Champ, and he began to suffer from a substantial credibility deficit, culminating in his soft-core kiddie-porn disaster Endless Love, which also torpedoed Brooke Shields' then-burgeoning career.

Now in his 70s, Zeffirelli still gushes sentiment from his heart as from a torn artery. Fortunately, Jane Eyre is the perfect complement to his weepy visual flourishes. With its cavernous old mansion and scenes of Dickensian privation, Zeffirelli seems less excessive than unduly restrained. He's mounted a grand opera without any arias, a Gothic romance so beautifully overwrought as to grab you clumsily, whisper tragic stories in your ear, then plant a sloppy kiss on your mouth. You succumb to rather than resist its smoothly manufactured passion and sadness.

Zeffirelli has also honed his style to the source material with greater skill than he's shown in years, even when the film comes up short. He's always been the kind of director who makes terrific use of color, but starting with Hamlet and continuing here, he's washed out the pastels and concentrated on subtler earth tones. He aims for a painterly, chiaroscuro look, full of sharp contrasts in shadows and light. This approach generally complements the major themes in the film, especially the characters' self-imposed blindness.

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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