Sunday, February 5, 2012
Jane Eyre Movie Review
I feel a little ashamed that I came into Cary Fukunaga’s lively adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre without ever having read the book or even seen an older film version. This is in spite of the existence of about ten versions from both cinema and television in the sound era. I didn’t even know the story. So my approach to the film has little to do with the film as an adaptation of a novel and story I’m familiar with and much more to do with how Fukunaga’s telling, from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, affected me as I watched.
I’m amazed at Fukunaga’s adept hand at directing a nineteenth century Gothic novel for the screen when his only other feature film work has been the Mexican gang story Sin Nombre. The stories could hardly be more dissimilar, but his approach in establishing two competing storylines that converge functions effectively in building suspense in both stories. In Sin Nombre it was Casper’s story in parallel to Sayra’s until the two meet and travel together. In Jane Eyre the title heroine, played by Mia Wasikowska, is the sole protagonist and she has one story, but in this adaptation (I presume it is a function of Buffini’s screenplay) we meet her mysteriously fleeing through barren and ragged country until she stumbles, exhausted, upon the home of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters. By having St. John be as ignorant of Jane’s identity and background as we are makes us sympathize with him more later in the story. It is only in flashback that we find out about Jane’s childhood and young adult life, occasionally shifting back to her physical and mental recuperation with the Rivers until past and present meet one another and the story shifts into its third act and reconciliation.
Jane’s story is a true tale of woe. As an orphaned child left in the care of her cold and repressive aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), she has no recourse when her cousin abuses her and then lays the blame on Jane. She is sent off to a boarding school under the brutal tutelage of Mr. Brocklehurst (the best Dickensian name outside of a Dickens story). I got the sense that the scenes at the school were truncated, but to excellent effect as at this point in the story we really want to see Jane reach adulthood so she can get to the terrible predicament that had her crawling through the rain-soaked moor to St. John’s feet. Jane’s takes a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, an imposing Gothic structure isolated in the countryside. In the absence of the Master of the House, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) keeps order.
But there are strange goings on in the house. Odd sounds emanate in the night. Adele, the little girl whom Jane tutors, speaks of ghosts haunting the halls. When Rochester finally arrives he is fully of mystery and obviously guarding a secret. The middle section of the film is staged with many of the trappings of a Gothic horror story. It is not frightening, but it is moody, atmospheric, and occasionally chilling. It calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca more strongly than anything else. Fukunaga often uses only candles and other available sources to light the interiors of Thornfield Hall, the characters bathed in the warm glow of burning wicks and lanterns contrasted by the cold and imposing stone walls. The result is gorgeous cinematography by Adriano Goldman on the order of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Dario Marianelli’s score features a repeated mournful violin melody that underscores the sadness of Jane’s life, conscripted to never-ending servitude.
Though it has elements of suspense, Jane Eyre is a story of enduring love. Of course Jane and Rochester fall in love. Or so we believe he loves her. Rochester is nearly impossible to read. Fassbender truly had a breakout year in 2011. He was the most watchable thing in an overblown Hollywood action spectacle. He was brilliant and tragic as a sex addict whose life is turned upside down. And in Jane Eyre he demonstrates his deft handling of nineteenth century literary prose. He is as comfortable in a business suit in contemporary New York City as in period dress. As Rochester he has expressive eyes that are so piercing he could break the will of the most determined, but not Jane. She is a nineteenth century feminist hero. She would make Jane Austen proud. Jane Eyre refuses to submit to anyone’s will. She is her own person and can not conceive of marrying someone for social expediency. She is truly a wonderful match for Rochester, whom I suspect had never met his intellectual equal before Jane. Wasikowska plays her not as fragile, but with a strong exterior that masks the hardships she’s endured in her very short life.
My biggest criticism is that the last half hour feels rushed. If I had to guess, I’d say that a lot has been excised from the novel in order to push through the climax quickly. The first 90 minutes buildup is endlessly watchable because Jane and Rochester is great characters. I’m sure they are wonderful as written by Bronte, but you can’t deny that Buffini’s writing and the two lead performances bring them off the page to have them teeming with vibrancy. After that major events and revelations occur so quickly it was like I was blindsided. Before you know it the film has reached its conclusion and you have to quickly put the pieces together in your head. It probably could have done with an additional ten minutes or so, but at the same time I’m grateful to have found a concise telling of a classic story that brings it in under two hours. That’s quite a rarity these days.