Jane Eyre is a 1996 American, British, French, and Italian film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre and William Hurt as Mr. Rochester and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The film is distributed by Miramax and is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Jane Eyre is a young orphan who lives with her Aunt Reed until the age of ten and is then sent to Lowood, a charity school for girls, where her harsh treatment continues. She befriends Helen Burns after enduring punishment from the school’s proprietor, Mr. Brocklehurst, upon arrival. While Helen is posing for Jane to draw her portrait, Brocklehurst calls her curly hair “vain” and orders it cut; Jane provocatively offers her own hair to be cut too. One night soon after, Helen dies of consumption.
When Jane is eighteen, she becomes a teacher at Lowood and later advertises for a governess position, securing one for the ward of Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Over time, she falls in love with Mr. Rochester, despite his apparent interest in the beautiful Blanche Ingram. Meanwhile, Jane hears mysterious screams and laughter, and a strange fire occurs in Rochester’s bedroom. Thornfield also has a strange visitor one night, Mason, and Jane is asked to nurse his bleeding wounds that he received somewhere in the house.
Ultimately, Mr. Rochester asks Jane to marry him, and she accepts. However, the marriage is stopped by Mason’s attorney, who reveals Rochester’s secret— he has a wife still living. Rochester takes the party back to the house to see his insane wife, who is kept locked in the attic under care of a servant, Grace Poole. Jane flees Thornfield and returns to her aunt’s home; her aunt passes away, and the parson, Mr. Rivers, informs her that she has inherited her estranged uncle’s fortune. Moreover, Rivers asks for Jane’s hand in marriage, but since she is still in love with Mr. Rochester, she chooses instead to return to him. Jane finds Thornfield in ruins from a fire set by Rochester’s wife, Bertha, which contributed to the deaths of Grace Poole and Bertha. Mr. Rochester was blinded and handicapped while trying to rescue the inhabitants of Thornfield from the fire. Jane still loves him thus and marries him, and his eyesight “slowly but surely” returns.
This adaptation strongly portrays young Jane and her childhood perspectives. Viewers are acquainted early with Jane’s developing personality, her poverty, and her mistreatment, but even in youth, she is determinedness and spirit shines, as seen in her standing up to her Aunt Reed as well as Mr. Brocklehurst on behalf of herself and Helen Burns, respectively. Introducing and developing her character while she is a vulnerable child perhaps increases sympathy for Jane even more so than usual. Hopkins notes an interesting scene in this film in her book Screening the Gothic; Jane’s and subsequently the viewers’ first acquaintance with Mr. Rochester in this film is with a portrait of him has a child, a fact which Hopkins says “underlines the film's strong interest in representing childhood and its perspectives,” an interest which it indeed realizes throughout (93). In this adaptation, Adele, too, is portrayed as more relatable and childlike than in other adaptations; whereas some treat her as a frivolous little adult, Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre presents her as more sympathetic through her youth and vulnerability, comparable even to that of young Jane, despite their class differences. In addition, this film also allows for considerable development of Adele’s character, as Jane’s relationship with her student is given some attention.
Shadows are a significant aspect of the overall setting of the film; Thornfield Hall is gloomy both outside and in, and shadows, as one knows, are where secrets are hidden. The gothic exists in this film in its setting. Overall, the setting of this film is appropriately cold and gray, the coloring is rather dim and dull, and the weather is never really sunny. This Jane Eyre is largely concerned with shadows, visually and in the storyline. The film’s use of light and space is telling, which according to Roger Ebert “makes Thornfield Hall into a place where Jane's bedchamber is sunny and bright, but the spaces controlled by Rochester are ominous” and thus makes her “world… seem an ominous and forbidding place, charged with implied sexuality." Light and shadows mark a contrast between Jane and Rochester and the secrets of Thornfield Hall; this juxtaposition is central to the film’s storyline and contributes to an atmosphere that is perhaps the film’s strongest attempt to embody the gothic. While tutoring Adele in drawing, Jane in fact verbalizes just this idea when she says, “The shadows are as important as the light.”
Compared to previous adaptations, Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre perhaps represents a more politically correct attempt to portray Mr. Rochester’s wife Bertha’s mental illness, avoiding presenting her as “Other.” Firstly, she is depicted lighter skinned, even compared to her brother, with the camera even zooming in for a close-up on her face, which emphasizes the pain, vulnerability, and even beauty reflected in her demeanor. Moreover, although her previous antics have indeed established her character as dangerous, the brief moment in the attic after the called-off wedding presents her as painfully misunderstood and suffering rather than threatening, that is, until she runs toward Jane with a torch. Furthermore, little personal explanation is given to Jane for Mr. Rochester’s actions, which consequently prevents him from stating the face that he “cannot love his wife” as he does in the novel and some previous adaptations. The film is also interested in more explicitly showing Bertha’s behavior, like her actually setting the fire that destroys Thornfield Hall; moreover, an interesting development in this adaptation is that Bertha kills Grace Poole before herself by pushing her off the balustrade, which seems to be the deciding factor for her own suicide, which we also see. Overall, Bertha’s pain and struggle are visible in the film.
Modern Social Conventions
Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre, in retaining certain elements of Brontë’s original plot, offers a more feminist reading of the text for 1990s viewers. Not only is Jane clearly intelligent, capable, and spirited despite her poverty and mistreatment, but she also proves to be an intellectual and otherwise equal match for Mr. Rochester, unlike, for example, Stevenson’s 1944 adaptation. Jane also eventually achieves socioeconomic independence through the inheritance of her long-lost uncle’s fortune in Madeira, ultimately giving her more freedom and opportunity to match her strong will and spirit. On the other hand, Zeffirelli’s film sends Jane straight back to Gateshead after she flees from Thornfield Hall perhaps as a nod to Stevenson’s film, which in this case allows her to establish a relationship with the Rivers and also to receive and reject Mr. Rivers’ marriage proposal. Moreover, the Rivers are not Jane’s blood relations in this narrative, an invention that fits more neatly with the conventions of the twentieth century in that it avoids the prospect of cousin marriage.
While not exactly a blockbuster, Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre sees relatively positive ratings, with a 6.8 out of 10 star rating from IMDb and a 74% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The film was also positively received by critics like Roger Ebert who praise the casting and performances of Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt as Jane and Mr. Rochester.
Significance of the Film
As stated by Hopkins in Screening the Gothic, “details or moments [in this film] which initially seem odd prove… to have an underlying logic or to be part of an overall coherence - but a coherence driven by very different and far more practical and material considerations than the dark imperatives which drive the Gothic” (92). The time constraint imposed by the medium of film forces time and plot to be telescoped, and cinema also limits the extent of introspection and uncertainty explored, in a sense forcing a shift from the traditional gothic to the realm of the material and social. As a result, this film’s primary communication of the gothic exists, as mentioned earlier, in the shadows: in its setting, costumes, plot inventions, and other visual aspects. The narrative of social class is retained. The film’s interest in childhood echoes the concerns of a society increasingly concerned with the tragedy of child abuse, even psychological abuse, which one might argue Jane experienced throughout her childhood in her segregation and unwarranted punishment in the Reed household and her often harsh treatment at Lowood. However, the substitution for Jane’s haunting and traumatic experience in the Red Room at the Reed’s with a red screen as the backdrop for the opening credits, for example, is “typical of the ways in which Zeffirelli's film eschews any sense of the psychoanalytic perspective in favor of a resolutely materialist one” (Hopkins 95).
This adaptation explores a more modern portrayal of Bertha and her mental illness; it also arguably depicts the characters of Jane and Mr. Rochester in an authentic manner, both in terms of Brontë’s text and this adaptation’s own purposes. Charlotte Gainsbourg presents a plain, smart, cool, but subtly beautiful Jane Eyre, whereas William Hurt acts as a more subdued and introspective Mr. Rochester than those of previous adaptations; however, Jane still fears to approach him, as he is yet older and mysterious. As such, to quote Ebert, this adaptation highlights the “touching” romance between these “two troubled, wounded people” over the traditional gothic.
- Jane Eyre on IMDb
- Jane Eyre review by Roger Ebert
- Jane Eyre on Rotten Tomatoes
- Jane Eyre (1996 film) on Wikipedia
Lisa Hopkins. “Fragmenting the Gothic: Jane Eyre and Dracula.” Screening the Gothic. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. Print.