I just finished watching the 1996 version of Jane Eyre. Much as I proclaim my love for Charlotte Bronte, I have only seen the 2006 two-part BBC miniseries; I thought it was about time that I start moving through all the previous adaptations, as well. I have put this off because I very much like the 2006 version, and I have been afraid to watch any others for fear of tainting that love or, even worse, losing my love for this story.
I don't think either of those things have happened. I may be wrong to write down my thoughts so instantly after seeing the movie, but I can hardly help it. So here is my take on the 1996 movie.
The opening bit didn't make me feel like I knew Jane well enough, though I did like that the red room was actually a room with red furnishings (versus the weird red light the 2006 one projected onto the room). Anna Paquin did a good job as young Jane, and I rather liked the girl they chose for Helen Burns (although I didn't feel like she was so much a mentor to Jane as in the book). It was nice to see Miss Temple (who is missing from the 2006) in Lowood. But at about this time, I began to think that the theme of faith wasn't put in enough, and that surely we should be seeing more into Jane's imaginative nature. Instead, Jane does her drawings--with the insinuation seeming to be that she does them rather well; yet she only does (in canon) them as a way of expressing all of that great imagination and passion she has inside her mind, not because she has a particular talent at art.
And when she goes to Thornfield, there did not seem to be enough emphasis on the strange, out-of-the-ordinary act of independence her advertising to get the job was--it's more like it was just the next step for her to take.
Now let's talk about Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane. I've grown to rather like Ruth Wilson as Jane, so Charlotte took a little getting used to, but honestly, much of her portrayal is probably more like how I imagined Jane would look (I mean, in her expressions and such) in her daily life. When I first saw Ruth, I thought she sometimes showed a bit too much emotion on her face. Don't get me wrong, Jane feels very much emotion, but she usually tries to hide a lot of it. Even when she is saying bold things. So Charlotte had a way of keeping her face from being too emotionally expressing. But sometimes it was a bit much. And I don't know if this was her fault or the director's. I tend to think the latter. Because the thing is, it's okay if we have a Jane who isn't wearing her features on her face so much, as long as we are always aware of how acutely she does feel. That can be expressed in many ways in a movie. Music is one way; I love the music in the 2006, but the music in this one hardly ever set the right tone. At least, it didn't act as the agent for engaging the audience in the emotion that it could (or should) have been.
Because there is one more point related to this: this movie doesn't seem like it was, after all, meant to be so much from Jane's perspective. We see a couple of scenes where Jane is not present (like Rochester and Adele together, wishing she would come back from visiting the dying Mrs. Reed), and there are some transitions where she suddenly pops up without us knowing exactly how she got there. So it's almost like we're outsiders looking in on the story. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, I suppose, if it's done right, but no, it wasn't. It just felt like a connection was missing.
I guess I'm obligated to say something on William Hurt as Rochester. He also took getting used to. I think my conclusion is that I would like his take on the character more if I was not familiar with the book: I liked the way he played his character and I could sympathize with him, but he was missing a key Rochester characteristic or two. Again, this could also be because certain kinds of lines are missing from the script given to the actor. Like the teasing that takes place between Jane and Rochester. There is a bit of it, but not nearly enough: it's almost what their relationship is first built on, isn't it? You can't just go and take it out.
Oh, what else? Adele didn't always sound French enough to me. Why on earth was the Rivers family introduced earlier in the story, only to come back again for so brief a bit? Why was Adele at school when Jane and Rochester were supposed to get married the first time? Where was the wonderful epiphany (there was the "Jane! Jane!" call, but it can hardly be called an epiphany--I was never thrilled at the 2006 version of it, and this was worse) that leads Jane back to Thornfield in the end? Which leads to . . .
Where was the spiritual element that is such a huge part of the book? It started off okay with young Jane, but then disappeared entirely. Where was the fantasy? Sure, Rochester says a thing or two about Jane's fairy element, but there's hardly much basis for it in the movie. Where, even, was the Gothic? Grace Poole looked wonderfully vampirish (seriously, I loved her look), but the Gothic was not strong enough.
This movie felt too much like just a period movie. Like an Oliver Twist story. (I've nothing against Twist--it has some good stuff, but it isn't the same stuff Jane Eyre has.) Here's poor, unloved Jane sent to a cruel school until she goes to teach at Thornfield, eventually finding an inheritance from a long lost relative and her perfect love. Too many of the fibers of the story are missing that make the expression of this plot-line unique.
My final statement is this: I generally liked this movie. It makes for a quaint love story. But it ends there. And the absolute beauty about the book on which it is based is that there are so many layers. The quaint love story is only the topmost one, the one I loved when I was twelve. Underneath, there is what I now love eight years later: Jane's entire journey of self-discovery and self-independence and dependence on God--the relationship with Rochester is just the outer situation that is the vehicle for all of these other discoveries and expressions about who Jane is and what she does on her life's journey. I can't get all this from the 1996 movie.
As always, I find I must return to the book.