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Rapid Review: Jane Eyre

April 16, 2011



“Oh, comply!” it said. “. . . soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?” Still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre

Such a woman and a character who would utter the words above is an unusual one for Victorian times.  Jane Eyre is not a wilting violet waiting for her Prince Charming.  When this fabled love interest does show up, he is decidedly neither a prince nor very charming.  Jane is a smart gal who knows that losing herself may not be worth the hassle of a torrid romance.

Dear Reader: I have finally seen the most recent adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved book and I have come to issue thusly this unsurprising spoiler alert:  I have a huge, harmless crush on Michael Fassbender.  This should come as no big shock, but is nonetheless a tribute to both that actor and the film, for it is partially on the basis of his interpretation of Rochester that this film is one of the best adaptations of the classic book I’ve seen in a long time.

Jane walks the Yorkshire Dales

Here we have not just the hundredth or so adaptation of this tale of a lonely but proud and determined governess from the Yorkshire Moors, but also one coming on the heels of a pretty decent BBC teleplay released only four years ago and a flawed 1996 adaptation by Shakespearian director Franco Zefferelli starring the miscast John Hurt as the self-tormented Mr. Rochester.  The director of 2011’s incarnation of the romanticized, mock-gothic tale is Cary Fukunaga, a young director who has directed nothing you will have heard of in the past, but is obviously a fan of moody, dense cinematography and pointed, longing looks between his actors.  I have a feeling Mr. Fukunaga and I would get along fabulously.

I’m going to assume most of you reading this review know the basics of this time-honored classic tale, but for those who need a quick cheat sheet, here’s the lowdown.  Jane (played as an adult by Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) is the poor relation who, after being emotionally abused by her vain aunt (played with curling upper lip by the fabulous Sally Hawkins) and horrid cousins for no reason other than the fact that she won’t put up with the ridiculous, is promptly shipped off to Mr. Brocklehurst’s school for wayward (read: intelligent and self-aware) children who cannot behave in polite society.  Jane grows up to become a plain-faced but intense young governess who isn’t afraid to state her mind and values honesty and forthrightness above all else in life.  This does not make her popular among the locals. It also leads to a strong case of a disease much shunned by class-conscious Victorians: Independence of Thought and Action in Females.  Oh- the horror.

Jane and Rochester about to eat each other whole with their eyes

She finds a job at a mysterious manor house in the Yorkshire Dales, where fog, craggy haunted landscapes, and dark stormy nights aren’t just scenery for the tourists, they are a time-honored way of life (I’ve now been there and Bronte speaketh the truth on this).  This creepy Haunted Mansion is owned by the reclusive Mr. Rochester (played effectively by 300 and Inglourious Basterds star Michael Fassbender), who occupies this massive monument to loneliness with his kind-hearted but fierce housekeeper (who else but Dame Judi Dench – DUH), his precocious (which is Victorian slang for annoying) ward Adele and the various hundreds of servants it would take to run this massive joint.  Of course, no one ever sees these slaves to industry because they would clash with the decor.  This isn’t Upstairs, Downstairs.

Jane and Rochester meet cute when she almost kills him by running in front of his horse in the billowing Yorkshire fog.  This does not go over well with the moody and  brooding Rochester, who is not only used to getting his own way, but cannot understand why a silly governess would be out walking in the fog in the first place.    In this, he has a valid point.  Thus a star-crossed romance which must combat societal norms  and ghosts of the past (Rochester’s closet is occupied by far more skeletons than jaunty and stylish cravats) begins.

The key to both the novel and Fukunaga’s on-target interpretation of the relationship between the two leads is that both characters come to an understanding of each other because  no one else in Victorian-era England could fathom the value of honesty and practicality in romance and life the way Jane and Rochester do.  Neither one has the patience for polite small talk, the styling and care of floral arrangements, or three-hour long card parties.  They are soul mates from their very first conversation.  He refuses to be a gentlemen for the sake of propriety, and she refuses to tell him lies to flatter his vanity.  This is what Rochester finds intriguing about Jane, and so the dance begins.  Fukunaga, Fassbender and Wasikowska capture this dynamic with alacrity, originality and spark.  This Jane and Rochester have palpable chemistry, but in the film as well as the novel, they must combat both their own flaws and  deep-seated beliefs to find happiness.

Jane in her independence

There are the inevitable scenes of tortured looks and grasping at each other in the rain as secrets and skeletons from the closet come forth, but it is the journey that counts, Dear Reader, and in this Fukunaga’s film succeeds at a level where others have failed.   What’s important about this incarnation of Jane’s story is that it IS Jane’s story first and foremost, and the mood and romance of it all don’t rupture that core idea.  Fukunaga has an eye for details in both mannerism and costuming that make Jane more of an individual than a stereotype.  This Jane isn’t as plain as in past interpretations, but that fits.  Bronte didn’t mean for her to stoop about with eyes lowered wearing gray for three hours.  Jane is a force of nature barely contained, and Wasikowska’s performance is all in the eyes.  Jane could break loose at any time, and what a glorious show that would be.

The key performance that brings it all together, however, is by Fassbender.  Bronte’s Rochester was neither handsome nor charming and Fassbender gets half of that equation correct and can’t help the other half.  Still, he is a skillful actor who interprets Rochester as Jane’s equal, showing that he is as frightened and stubborn regarding their relationship as she is, but with more baggage to deal with along the way.  Fassbender also knows how to act with the eyes rather than the dialogue and it works well in the more sedated scenes.

Jane and St. John Rivers

There are many fine performances by some of Britain’s greatest character actors, including Jamie Bell as Jane’s other love possibility, St. John Rivers, Simon McBurney as a blustering and creepy Mr. Brocklehurst, and Romy Settbon Moore as the most realistic and least grating Adele I’ve seen on film to date.

This version of Jane Eyre is the most faithful and thoughtful adaptation of Bronte’s book in many years, and the first one I’ve seen in decades where not one actor is miscast, not one hem is out-of-place, and not one camera angle is inappropriate.   In short, dear reader, get thyself to a theater (the movie is currently playing at the Rio and at Town Center in Overland Park) for two hours of gothic romance you will not regret.

Overall Grade:  A

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