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.

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3 Comments

  1. Nicely done indeed. A most thorough and thoughtful review, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. And I think you touch on something well here that I tried to get at in my review — if you “get”” the book Jane Eyre, you will “get” this film version of it. If you think JE is just another period romance novel (which it most emphatically is NOT), you are bound to be disappointed with this film. It does not deliver on the promises of the traditional romance genre.

    Nor should it.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Thanks, Beth. That means a lot. I really enjoyed your discussion with Sarah. And I’m glad you agree – I feel like this might be the best drama I see all year, which will make writing reviews rather chorelike for the next eight months.

  2. I am DYING to see this. Jane Eyre was hands-down my favorite book growing up. Thanks for the great review!


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