Jane Eyre

Anything but plain

It has been a long time, maybe forever, since I attended a movie that drew actual gasping and sobbing from the audience.  Nothing surprises us anymore.  Maybe it’s something about the clientele of an independent theatre vs. Regal (the latter of which makes one cry because of the ticket/concession prices, not the quality of the film).  Regardless, Cary Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Jane Eyre, based upon Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Gothic novel, made that happen.

For those of you non-literary readers (a term which seems backwards and perverse in and of itself), the first thing to note about Jane Eyre is that the novel is not simply a period romance, which is how it has been adapted in about twenty-four films and TV specials.  The novel itself is a Bildungsroman story featuring elements of Gothic horror and social criticism, and is most notably one of the earliest examples of the phrase “ahead of its time”: a gorgeous work of literature featuring a self-reliant female protagonist.  Jane is highly moral, but mature and individualistic, capable of evolving on her own, never appearing as a damsel in distress, never in need of rescue.  Fukunaga remembers all of this.

The story follows Jane Eyre, of course, played in this version by the staggeringly talented Mia Wasikowska (about whom I gushed in my Alice in Wonderland piece).  Growing up in the house of her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), Jane is frequently abused, physically and mentally.  Reticence, however, is not in Jane’s vocabulary.  She educates herself, sneaking a look at books when no one is around, as well as talking (and striking) back when provoked by her cousins.  As a result, she is told that she is deceitful, and is sent off to a special girls’ school.  Fukunaga gives us these early sections of the story in the form of flashbacks, with the interest of showing us that Wasikowska plays the version of Jane with whom we’ll be spending the most time.  This shifts the linear storytelling of the novel, but in the film, it’s not terribly distracting.  It’s not terribly needed either, but there you go.  With one thing and another, Jane becomes Governess at Thornfield Manor, teaching the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), with whom she will eventually fall in love, and befriending the aging housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench).

An amazing aspect of this film is that it retains the storytelling point of view of the novel: Jane Eyre is told from Jane’s perspective.  In the film, we never get a scene without Jane.  Mia Wasikowska (and to a lesser but nearly as powerful degree, young Amelia Clarkson) carries this entire film on her shoulders.  Often, in films like these, it’s ninety percent first-person, then the filmmaker caves in because (s)he can’t figure out how to tell an important piece of exposition without cutting away from the established perspective – not here.  We’re always with Jane, and more importantly, we want to stay with her.

Michael Fassbender appears as the story’s Byronic hero, and does so with a humor that makes us love Mr. Rochester but never even approaches the fourth wall, as many period pieces feel they must.  As a friend put it, “Fassbender not playing a douchebag in a military uniform, for once?”  Yes, and it’s magical to watch.  This film’s release was limited, but I’m holding out hope that the two leads will get the recognition they deserve from these performances. Appropriately, Rochester’s apparent love interest, Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots) actually performs one of Lord Byron’s musical pieces.  Everything from the score, the architecture and the atmosphere to the social and scientific assumptions of the time period are retained.  Judi Dench, as usual, is sweet and grandmotherly, and can set the tone of an entire scene with one facial expression (one that comes to mind is the scene in which Mrs. Fairfax first sees Jane and Rochester together).  Jamie Bell also appears as Jane’s cousin (a detail left out in the film), the pious St. John Rivers, who takes Jane in after her unceremonious exeunt from Thornfield.

Fiction writer David Jauss suggests, in his essay, Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life, that we authors of fiction try to write our way into characters whose lives we know nothing about. On paper, we become different people.  In Charlotte’s time, she was writing about herself – Jane Eyre, judging from what we know, mirrors Charlotte as a person in the most striking of ways (often summed up in brusque phrases such as “a woman with a strong heart,” but take from it what you will).  If I may be so bold, I think if Charlotte had lived to see the dawn of film, or hadn’t passed away with an unborn child, she/her descendants would have been more pleased with Fukunaga’s adaptation of the story and Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of Jane than any version of either done before.

It might be worth mentioning that in Charlotte’s time, people were still figuring things out – things like the way sound travels.  In several sections of the story, Jane hears voices, the most important of which occurs when she hears Rochester calling her name and decides to return to him.  In all our romanticizing, we forget that in this period of the world, people weren’t sure this kind of thing wasn’t possible – that you couldn’t hear someone softly calling your name from leagues away.  In this adaptation of Jane Eyre, I promise you’ll hear Charlotte’s, just a little.

Jane Eyre (2011); written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë; directed by Cary Fukunaga; starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.

Four Lions

Rubberdinghyrapids, bro

Can you make a comedy about terrorism?  I don’t know.  I’ve heard Chris Morris’ Four Lions described as a “Jihadist satire,” but the implications of that term grind my gears a little bit.  In order to turn something into  satire or comedy (yes, even a black comedy), you need subject matter that can, under the right set of unusual or absurd circumstances, become laugh-out-loud comical.  Suicide bombing is not one of those subjects – and if it is, for you, you may want to take a moment and think about why.

None of this is to suggest Four Lions isn’t a good film.  It is, to a point.  I’m still just not sure what kind of movie it is.  It has some very humorous moments, which stem not from the subject matter but from Morris/Armstrong’s sharp writing.  If there’s one thing that adds charm to a film of this type, it’s the dark British humor (remember our “like Guy Ritchie but…” category?).  The story follows Omar (Riz Ahmed), a radicalized (but married) Muslim man aspiring to become a suicide bomber along with a few friends: Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam, Waj (Kayvan Novak), the “slow” member of the group who will agree with pretty much anything Omar says, and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who likes to use animals for bomb experiments.  Eventually, the group recruit Hassan (Arsher Ali), a Tupac-quoting young Muslim man who fakes a bombing during a panel discussion.  Once he joins, we notice the count is one member high, and we begin to wonder which of the five will suffer a hilarious demise halfway through the film, leaving the “four lions” described in the title.

Surprisingly, there is scant conflict to speak of.  The friends cannot seem to agree on a target for their “plan,” but that’s about it.  Omar and Waj screw up their opportunities at a training camp in Pakistan and return home, but even then, the assertive Omar manages to keep his group under control (despite Barry taking a command position every time Omar is out of the room).  Even Omar’s wife (Preeya Kalidas) and child know what he’s planning, and fully support Omar blowing himself to bits.  This is striking, considering they seem to be a very moderate family, and whether the family’s blind acceptance is part of the joke, we’re left to decide for ourselves.  There are some excellent dialogue scenes early on, featuring witty derision between Omar and Barry (who you’d think would be the most comic character, but he’s established early on as the most ruthless and antagonistic), as well as Matt (Craig Parkinson), Omar’s co-worker/superior at his normal job.  Some of these scenes, specifically one in which Barry teaches the group to swallow their cell phone SIM cards in order to avoid being tracked, sets up the payoff at the end of the movie, some of which is excellent.

For whom are we supposed to root, you ask?  I’m not certain.  Obviously, we don’t want the group’s plan to succeed – it involves blowing up as many innocent bystanders as possible.  But we also don’t want these likable characters (except Barry, maybe) to be killed or apprehended by the government.  Since these are the only two options, the film doesn’t have what can be considered a “happy” ending, which goes against the Shakespearean idea that a happy ending is what makes a story a comedy.  Regardless, after the group decide to detonate themselves at a crowded marathon and begin their journey there, the story has a few nice slopes.  The fates of certain characters are brimming with irony, and while they may not generate laughter, they’ll certainly garner appreciation for the writing.  “Squat jogs, yeah?” the oblivious Matt states after Omar convinces him the group is carrying sports equipment, not explosives, and explains why they’re all running so strangely.

Ultimately, Four Lions is a clever, risky film packed with brilliant moments and good actors, but the tone is never defined.  What is supposed to be funny?  Why is it funny?  Sure, there are areas in our world (Gaza, for instance) where children are raised to believe martyrdom is heroic, but in a film like this, are we supposed to laugh at Omar’s likening of himself to Simba from The Lion King when explaining to his son how he’s going to blow himself up?  Again, why?  The tone darkens in the film’s final third.  Even some of the deaths, I think, are meant to be darkly humorous, but not everyone will laugh.  Some of the wrong people get blown up, which is expected, and the ending seems to ask, “Wasn’t that sad and regrettable?” after presenting us with a group of unfaltering extremists who barely lend a second to doubting what they are doing is right.  I’ll let you decide whether I’m talking about the characters or Morris and his film crew.

Four Lions (2010); written by Chris Morris and Jesse Armstrong; directed by Chris Morris; starring Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay,  Kayvan Novak and Arsher Ali.

Source Code

It’s the new me

You can follow a little trail of breadcrumbs from here to the beginning of this blog, and you can stuff the stale pieces in a nice deep Tupperware tub labeled “Stuff R.H. hates about movies.”  A recent nitpick has been the lack of, shall we say, “completion,” in thriller films (and this includes every subgenre – suspense thriller, sci-fi thriller, crime thriller, covers of M.J.’s Thriller, whatever).  I think we finally have a winner.

Speaking of breadcrumb trails, Source Code, the newest film from Duncan Jones (the son of David Bowie), actually has a comprehensible one.  First off, in order to stay within the bounds of the film’s projected gravitas, make a mental note that this is a sci-fi thriller.  Next, pay close attention to everything happening in the immediate background if you can – a lot of the fun is in unwinding the mystery yourself.

The story follows Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a chopper pilot in the American military who awakens aboard a moving train and doesn’t recognize his own reflection.  Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) sits across from him, referring to him as “Sean” and acting as though they’ve known each other forever.  Eight minutes later, the train explodes, and Colter awakens again, this time in an ice-cold space-age capsule, and to the disembodied voice of Vera Farmiga.  He soon learns from Farmiga’s character, Goodwin, that he is part of a special government program (guess its name!) used to prevent future disasters based on clues from the past.  Colter has been a part of this program for two months (though he thinks he’s only been there a day), and his mission is to uncover the identity of the terrorist who bombed the train – he will do it by inhabiting the body of Sean Fentress, one of the regular commuters.  In a sobering revelation, Goodwin tells Colter the train’s passengers are all dead. He is not going “back in time” to change what happened, but finding out who bombed the train in order to prevent future attacks.

The film is atmospheric and engaging from the get-go.  As soon as Colter wakes up, we know something’s awry.  The tendency of the camera lens to linger on minor details suggests we should be paying attention to Colter’s surroundings: a woman spilling coffee on Colter’s shoe, a passenger opening a soda can, a guy in the back referring to the conductor as “grandpa,” and Christina’s exact words.  When Colter is pulled out, the audience engagement only intensifies.  In many sci-fi films, we have a similar setup, then when the sci-fi part begins, we’re fed techy nonsense til we choke.  Here, it ups the stakes.  The conditions of Colter’s “capsule” – a term which briefly confounds the program’s inventor and overseer, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) – worsen.  Water begins leaking on the floor, and the windows frost over.  Communication with Goodwin becomes difficult.  We’re with Colter here, and we want to know what’s going on, but even more so (for now, at least) we want him to get back in there and find the bomber.  The filmmakers deliberately avoid showing us what Goodwin sees on her computer screen, and Rutledge continually insists that there is no time to lose.

The film’s twists are satisfying and unsettling, and the plot retains urgency throughout.  Farmiga and Monaghan provide gentle surfaces for Gyllenhaal’s rough hero to play against, and Wright’s limping pseudo-mad-scientist is a delicious antagonist, even though he’s not exactly a “bad guy.”  That role goes to Derek Frost (Michael Arden), lesser-seen but of key importance, who replaces the tired, unfair “Muslim terrorist” stereotype with a character who provides disturbing reminders of Timothy McVeigh, particularly when explaining why the train is to be destroyed.

Really, though, the four main actors drive this entire film, each occupying essential driving forces – Farmiga, Monaghan, Wright and Arden are like four sides of a box keeping Gyllenhaal in.  Wright, who is often given very little to do in films, gets a lot of dialogue in this one, and he’s an actor whose voice is a pleasure in itself.  We never find out why the character of Rutledge walks with a crutch, though it doesn’t get enough focus to become a red herring.

The development of Christina hits a roadblock because we only get a glimpse at the final eight minutes of her life, and being dead, she can only exist when Colter is in the Source Code.  Michelle Monaghan plays innocent well, and is a comfortable presence throughout the film, but all things considered, Christina herself does very little aside from talking about men and reacting accordingly to each new thing Colter does within the Source Code.  “You’re the pretty girl; the distraction,” Colter says when he’s still convinced Source Code is a training simulation.  The audience, perhaps, should consider that statement in regards to the film itself.  Farmiga, on the other hand, plays a strong military woman (and a living one, no less) but also has little to do outside of dealing with man-influenced (manfluenced?) crises.  It’s worth noting, though, to a point, that the most pivotal decision in the film’s climax is left up to her.

Very little goes unexplained or left behind in the film, which is a refreshing departure from recent thrillers such as Unknown, where we tried to stay with Liam Neeson but were left in the dust ourselves.  Even when Colter uses one of his Source Code trips to learn of his own whereabouts and discovers he may actually be dead – hinted at when Goodwin states that the requirements for Source Code mission candidacy are “very narrow” – we’re still with him, in both worlds.  The “dead” Colter begins to wonder whether Source Code doesn’t actually create a whole new reality, since he has already realized train passengers can be saved and people outside the train scenario can be contacted (i.e. other “versions” of Rutledge and Goodwin, Colter’s father, etc).  The results of his leap of faith in the end – testing this theory at the expense of fully dying instead of remaining a tool for further Source Code projects – are an excellent, satisfying payoff for the stress this film puts us through.  Just try to tell yourself that Colter’s only reason for doing it wasn’t his inexplicable obsession with “saving” a perfectly normal woman he’s only known for a few minutes.

A few questions: why is Rutledge seen as villainous?  Yes, his methods are rather ruthless (a word spelled almost like his name, not-so-ironically), but he is truly attempting to save millions of lives.  Through his antagonism, we get the impression that the filmmakers, at least, think Source Code as a whole is a bad idea.  Is it unethical?  Certainly.  Taking mortally wounded soldiers (without permission) and preventing them from dying in order to endlessly fight terrorism in an alternate timeline.  Yeah, agreed there.  It just seems like, with some kind of modification, this sort of thing would be a good idea.  I like the implication, however, that Source Code is an “afterlife” option for chosen people.  Makes you wonder where we really are in this film, what Wright’s “I have an eternal plan for you” scientist represents, what Farmiga’s caressing, guiding voice is really saying.  The beauty of this film is that you can speculate while also being 100% sure of what happened in the story when you leave the theatre.

Source Code is well-acted, performed with straight faces and the utmost urgency, and doesn’t purposely lose us in its complexities (nor does it bore us with hard science; see Primer).  Is the film’s science preposterous?  Sure.  But it’s the Fiction part that keeps the film’s heart beating.

Source Code (2011); written by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.