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Jane Eyre holds soul and bright acting over flourishes


Jane Eyre.

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Starring William Hurt, Anna Paquin, and Charlotte Gainsborough.

One Kendall Square, Cambridge.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

We know what to expect whenever Franco Zeffirelli makes a movie. It will be a literary adaptation, an example of art - produced within an inch of life, magnificent to look at. But mostly it will be impervious to its audience. It will resemble his stagings of operas, trying to make up with lavish display what it lacks in soul. The good news is that Jane Eyre has a strong enough soul at least to partially survive the smothering Zeffirelli touch.

Charlotte Bront published her most popular novel in 1847, and it hasn't been out of print since. Its early chapters, which detail young Jane's orphanhood, ill treatment at the hands of rich relatives, and eventual consignment to a strict girl's school, find partial foundation in some of the details of Bront's own life. But the rest - the job as governess to an illegitimate child, the hesitant slide into romance with Mr. Rochester, the child's tempestuous father, and the Gothic extravagance of the secret in the attic - are purely Bront's imagination.

Like most people who have adapted this story to film, Zeffirelli slights the earlier part of the tale to magnify the excesses of the later, which is too bad, because it means we only get to watch the delightful Anna Paquin as the young Jane for about twenty minutes. Paquin's graceful performance is as much ballet as acting; perhaps it is a touch too stylized, but it is lovely nonetheless. Fortunately, when Jane grows up and Charlotte Gainsborough takes over the role, she does not disappoint the expectations planted by Paquin.

Charlotte Bront imagined her heroine to be a plain young woman who unconsciously beguiles Rochester with her independence, strong will, and ready wit. Gainsborough plays her quietly, but with considerable force. She would not be called conventionally attractive, but manages to project her own unique beauty as she gives in to her love and discovers she is loved in return. She is also completely believable whenever called on to take a stand, whether about the treatment of her young charge or about the seeming duplicity of her lover.

Rochester is portrayed by William Hurt with less devices from his bag of irritating theatrics than usual. Hurt is the only American actor in a mostly British ensemble, but manages not to seem entirely out of place. Joan Plowright appears as Mr. Rochester's sympathetic housekeeper and Jane's friend - her presence is always a plus, even in films of lesser merit. The rest of the well chosen cast, especially Amanda Root and Samuel West, who appeared in last year's Persuasion, recalls to us the pleasures of other recent adaptations of British fiction.

It is ultimately the actors who save Jane Eyre from the excesses of its director. The cinematography and production design emphasize brightness and details - and too much of both. The treacly soundtrack was created by a committee of three composers, and is piled on predictably whenever any emotion is expressed. But Bront's characters, as interpreted by this company, manage to rise above it all.