A film review by Craig J. Koban November 24, 2011
2011, PG-13, 121 mins.
2011, PG-13, 121 mins.
Jane Eyre: Mia Wasikowska / Rochester: Michael Fassbender / St.
John Rivers: Jamie Bell / Mrs. Reed: Sally Hawkins / Mr.
Brocklehurst: Simon McBurney / Bertha: Valentina Cervi / Mrs.
Fairfax: Judi Dench
Bronte’s 1847 literary titan JANE EYRE is among the greatest of all 19th
Century literature. It has
been called one of the first great feminists texts, attributed largely to
the fact that its story focuses ostensibly on a strong female character and her
psychological state. Aside
from its noteworthy focus about a girl's maturation from childhood into
adulthood and all of the wealth of experiences – good and bad - that she
while on that journey, Bronte’s novel is also considered a forerunner in
moody and ominous Gothic fiction.
With that type of
legacy, it’s no wonder that there have been so many – oh-so-many! –
adaptations of the novel to the small and silver screen that I’ve simply
lost track over the years. There
have been nearly 20 feature film appropriations of the text - perhaps most
memorably encapsulated by the Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine iteration from
the 40’s – as well numerous TV-movie examples, not to mention the
umpteenth BBC productions that have been produced.
To say that I – and, most likely, many other viewers out there –
are suffering from JANE EYRE fatigue perhaps would be an understatement.
This, of course,
begs the question: why should I commit another two hours of my life to yet
another adaptation? Any new
venture would have to seriously bring something fresh and revitalizing to
the proceedings to make the necessity of venturing out to see a new JANE EYRE
appealing. For the most part, I believe that director Cary Joji Fukunaga
(SIN NOBRE) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (TAMARA DREWE) have
accomplished this: They have the
dubious task of taking an iconic work of literature that has been studied
and scrutinized for over a hundred years and – with some noticeable
alterations and tweaks – have made a new 21st Century JANE
EYRE that should appease most of the devotees of the novel while ushering
in new fans to the story. Fukunaga is neither slavishly faithful to Bronte’s story
nor is he committing an act of sacrilege with severely changing the text, which is
why this new JANE EYRE feels more invigorating than most of the recent
importantly, the film stays true to the book’s essential themes.
noteworthy alteration to the text has been with how the film begins,
progresses, and then ends. Buffini
has completely restructured the narrative so that the film’s story now
begins about two-thirds of the way through the plot and then progresses
through a series of flashbacks within other flashbacks to reveal the whole
of the story. If there is a criticism to levied against the film then it
would be that some obsessive followers of Bronte’s source text may be a
bit put off by the radical nature of just how disjointed the screenplay is
with its focus. Beyond that,
people that are only vaguely familiar with the novel may be a bit confused
with the fractured nature of the narrative’s momentum.
Nonetheless, this new approach to the original story is, I think,
precisely what a new adaptation needs to successfully segregate itself
from the pack.
Again, the central
focus is on the film’s heroine herself.
We still have a Jane Eyre that is a passionately independent minded
woman from humble beginnings. We
still have a Jane Eyre that begins life as a meager and poor woman that
evolves into someone more self-actualized as an adult.
We still have a Jane Eyre that, as she evolves into womanhood,
speaks her mind and has to deal with all of the nagging complexities of
living in her time and world. Best
of all, we still have a Jane Eyre that can willfully and confidently fend
for herself: she is a woman that never appears to need rescuing, as so
many other female character in fiction often require.
This film’s Jane
Eyre (played by Amelia Clarkson as a child and Mia Wasikowska as an adult)
is still a tormented and abused persona: she was an orphan that was
bullied, abused, and largely not tended after by adults above her,
which has left her, as an adult, a woman that struggles with her place in
the world. She takes a job as
a governess for the estate of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), who,
by all outward accounts, is a deeply cantankerous man and that sees
himself intellectually stymied by those around him.
Of course, when he comes across the path of the smart and shrewdly
spoken Jane, something most definitely peaks Edward’s interests in her.
The more time that
Jane spends with the dashing and intriguing master of the house, the more
both she and Edward become unspeakably drawn to one another.
Unfortunately, the past has a habit of creeping up on people in
romantic fiction, as it does for Edward, which greatly impedes his
courtship of Jane. Also
complicating matters is the presence of a clergyman named Rivers (Jamie
Bell), who was instrumental in taking Jane in when she was at her lowest
point in life, but nonetheless finds himself drawn to her as much as Edward.
Jane does find some solace, though, in the presence of the
estate’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and as the plot propels
to its conclusion and secrets are revealed, Jane is faced with even more
challenging dilemmas that even she could not foresee.
One element that
really helps this JANE ERYE stand out are its handsome and sumptuous
photography, its foreboding art direction, and its almost supernatural and
spooky mood created throughout. Fukunaga
certainly wants to make this version darker, drearier, and a more
oppressive looking picturesque tale that’s both beautiful and
intimidating to look at. His
evocative and stylish sense of composition and tone is on stellar display
here to help frame the emotional uncertainty of the underlining storyline.
JANE EYRE is an unqualified visual triumph through and through.
crowning achievement of the film is its two lead performances, which both
carry a raw and discreetly carnal chemistry with one another: Mia
Wasikowska is a natural Australian beauty that I did not find very strong in
ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but I
found her to be a limitlessly credible presence in THE
KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. She
has the thankless task of carrying the weight of JANE EYRE on her relatively
inexperienced shoulders and she manages to successfully encompass all of
the traits that we have come to love in the title role: her nimbly cunning way
with words, her steadfast readiness to stand her ground and speak her
mind, and her innate innocence and vulnerability as well.
What’s compelling here is how economical Wasikowska is with her
performance, using the subtlest of body movements and facial expressions
to speak volumes: she is masterfully restrained, as so many other young actors
are not these days.
Then there is Michael Fassbender, the Irish star with the penetrating and piercing stare, the deeply internalized intensity, and an almost menacing charm that he has exuded time and time again to pitch perfect timbre in films as far ranging as HUNGER, FISH TANK, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and even this year’s X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. He gives another tour de force performance as Edward that has to traverse between evoking his character’s oftentimes-intolerable irritability and emotional coldness alongside his late-stage susceptibility and compassion, especially during the film’s heart-rending conclusion. Wasikowska certainly gives this new JANE EYRE its soul, but Fassbender’s capricious edge gives it a sustained pulse. These two fine actors at the helm working marvelously off of one another - alongside the film’s darkly transfixing aesthetic grandeur and unique narrative handling - allows for this new JANE EYRE to be worth your investment, even if you think you’ve seen this story the same way countless times before.