Director Franco Zeffirelli reminds me of George Foreman. Like the larger-than-life boxer, Zeffirelli is a one-dimensional slugger. They both hit hard but telegraph their punches; put either man into the ring with powerful, straight-ahead material (Joe Frazier in Foreman's case, operas such as Rigoletto or Don Giovanni in Zeffirelli's) and he'll knock it flat. But match up either of them with a challenge requiring finesse, and suddenly they're transformed into helpless palookas (as was the case with big George when Muhammad Ali rope-a-doped him in Zaire).
Zeffirelli and Foreman continue to enjoy their reputations as heavyweights despite the fact that both men have continued to ply their trade well past their primes. But the parallels end there. Despite diminished skills, Foreman has won most of his recent bouts. The same cannot be said of Zeffirelli. With the exception of 1990's serviceable Hamlet, the most memorable aspect of which was the surprisingly competent performance of Mel Gibson in the title role, the Italian director's motion picture credits over the past two decades range from bad (1979's shamelessly lachrymose remake of The Champ) to worse (1981's overheated Endless Love starring screen legend Brooke Shields) to unreleaseable (an ill-conceived 1988 musical biopic called Young Toscanini featuring C. Thomas Howell in the title role).
Zeffirelli built his reputation as a flamboyant master in the Fifties and Sixties while directing theater and opera (for example, Zeffirelli guided diva Maria Callas through some of her greatest performances); he mounted productions of everything from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams with the venerable Royal Shakespeare Company in London and the Comedie Franaais in Paris, plus took his shows on the road to Rome, Milan, and even pre-perestroika Moscow.
Perhaps Zeffirelli's greatest advantage careerwise was carrying that illustrious reputation with him into the world of filmmaking. As a movie director, Zeffirelli has proven adept at realizing visually ornate dramas -- particularly when based on a Shakespeare play -- but incompetent at everything else. His latest film, an adaption of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, is a perfect case in point. Bronte's Jane, a complex and resilient heroine, steadfastly asserts her independence at a time when women -- especially poor women -- were expected to be docile and subservient. Zeffirelli successfully conveys that autonomy in the early going, when the young Jane (played by The Piano's precocious Anna Paquin), orphaned in early childhood and abandoned by her well-to-do relatives, rebels against the institutional tyranny of a strict boarding school and its pious, hard-hearted headmaster.
But the director casually imposes a critical change on Jane's character when she realizes that a proper deportment may be her only ticket out of the school, and therefore decides to put up with the indignities she and the other girls must suffer. One minute we see Jane the little girl bitterly mourning the death of her best friend A a death that would today initiate a massive lawsuit for negligence; the next we see a young adult Jane (sullen Charlotte Gainsbourg) packing off for her job as a governess at Thornfield Hall. After establishing and elaborating on the headmaster's severity and young Jane's spirited defiance, Zeffirelli devotes only one line of voice-over dialogue to her subsequent transition to model student and respectful governess-to-be.
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Likewise, Bronte's Edward Rochester, master of Thornfield Hall (the estate where Jane tutors pretty little Adele), should be a dark, brooding Byronic stud. Yet Zeffirelli gives us William Hurt. I hate to quibble about casting, but Hurt embodies the physicality of Bronte's wild stallion about as closely as, say, Jason Alexander does. Hurt works with the role as best he can, but in the end it's still washed-out-looking, cerebral, dispassionate William Hurt playing the archetypal dark, fiery, mystery man. Good as he is, he's all wrong for the part.
Plain Jane and macho Rochester fall in love. Again, Zeffirelli undercuts his own story's impact by failing to adequately establish both Rochester's animal magnetism and Jane's spunk. Yes, Rochester speaks often of Jane's bluntness, but we're supposed to believe he'd give up Elle Macpherson (nicely cast as shallow, self-absorbed, drop-dead gorgeous Blanche Ingram) for the jowly, tight-lipped governess. As if.
For a better idea of how to do this sort of thing correctly, Zeffirelli should have consulted Emma Thompson, whose lively adaption of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility proves that period pieces need not be static, mannered, and overwrought. (And Thompson could have given Charlotte Gainsbourg a few tips on how to play Jane in the bargain.) This Jane Eyre is a joyless, bombastic exercise that offers further evidence -- as if any were needed -- that as a filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli's best years are behind him. Unfortunately, as is the case with George Foreman, it appears that as long as some fool is willing to put up the money, Zeffirelli will continue to step into the ring. Too bad. He never so much as lays a glove on Jane Eyre.
Screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Franco Zeffirelli; directed by Franco Zeffirelli; with William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joan Plowright, Anna Paquin, and Elle Macpherson.