Zeffirelli and Company Deliver A Splendid 'Jane Eyre'

Given the recent success of Jane Austen as a screen favorite, with films ranging from the elegant "Sense and Sensibility" to the painterly "Persuasion," and the irrepressible "Clueless," it was inevitable that other classic British authors would get a crack at the multiplex scene.

It's equally logical that Charlotte Bronte is the first to arrive, since her "Jane Eyre" has been down this road before, capturing hearts and box-office fame no fewer than three times in decades past.

The version most moviegoers remember is the 1944 picture with Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor in the leading roles. Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive starred in a mostly forgotten adaptation 10 years earlier, and George C. Scott teamed with Susannah York in a 1971 edition. Who could resist giving one of literature's great growing-up stories another go-round in the age of Austen?

Not that Bronte has a great deal in common with Austen beyond gender, nationality, and brilliance. Austen's approach to storytelling is austere and classical, reflecting her 18th-century roots. Bronte's quintessentially 19th-century style is far more wild and romantic. It replaces eloquent epigrams with a passionate, free-flowing prose that's ideally suited to her most popular tale, about an orphaned girl who becomes a governess in the household of a wealthy man with a handsome face, a dour demeanor, and a family secret locked away in the attic.

In keeping with Bronte's comparatively modern tone, the new screen edition of "Jane Eyre" is more gripping and accessible than most of the recent Austen adaptations, and could well become a bigger hit. If so, accolades should go not only to Bronte but also to the smart performances by the movie's well-chosen cast.

The best comes from Charlotte Gainsbourg, a young French star whose previous English-language picture, "The Cement Garden," only hinted at the emotional richness she finds here. Not a conventionally glamorous actress, she uses her offbeat good looks to fine advantage, giving Jane a no-nonsense plainness to match the no-nonsense views of life and love that shape her actions in the story.

Paving the way in earlier scenes is a similarly strong portrayal of little-girl Jane by Anna Paquin, an Academy Award winner for "The Piano," where she played Holly Hunter's hard-pressed daughter.

William Hurt wasn't born to play Rochester, a moody character best handled by a natural-born ham like Welles, who will always be most closely identified with the role. Hurt musters more drive and energy than usual, though, turning in a credible performance if not a distinguished one.

Smaller parts are played by first-rate British stars: Joan Plowright, John Wood, Geraldine Chaplin, and Billie Whitelaw.

The picture was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, whose film career has stretched from the heights of "La Traviata" and "Romeo and Juliet" to the depths of "The Champ" and "Endless Love." As this trajectory suggests, Zeffirelli is at his best in historical rather than contemporary settings. "Jane Eyre" is well suited to his abilities, allowing for larger-than-life characterizations set against imposing backgrounds. To his credit, atmosphere never overwhelms plot, and the psychology of the tale remains as vivid as the movie's carefully wrought visual details, filmed by David Watkin with sublime sensitivity to nuance.

The age of Austen may not have ended, but the age of Bronte has unquestionably arrived.

'Jane Eyre' has a PG rating. It contains adult situations and scenes that could be disturbing to children.

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