By Kristen Sales
Released: March 11, 2011
In the 19th Century-set story, Jane Eyre (played by Ms. Wasikowska) suddenly flees Thornfield Hall, the vast and isolated estate where she works as a governess for AdÃ¨le Varens, a child under the custody of Thornfield’s brooding master, Edward Rochester (Mr. Fassbender). The imposing residence – and Rochester’s own imposing nature – have sorely tested her resilience. With nowhere else to go, she is extended a helping hand by clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his family. As she recuperates in the Rivers’ Moor House and looks back upon the tumultuous events that led to her escape, Jane wonders if the past is ever truly past…
Adapted from the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
I have never read “Jane Eyre”, Charlotte Bronte’s epic Gothic romance. I have never even seen a filmed version of the novel, which is quite an accomplishment considering there have been dozens of adaptations, sequels, re-imaginings and homages. So, I went into this newest screen version without any preconceived notions beyond what the trailer provided.The trailer for Jane Eyre is moody, and so is the film. Jane (Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman in early Victorian England and her “tale of woe” is as heart-rending as it gets. Orphaned at a young age, Jane is batted from abusive household to abusive household, first as a guest of an uncaring aunt and her monstrous children, then, after the aunt tires of Jane’s obstinacy (read: distaste for constant physical and emotional torture), at a horrible boarding school. Jane’s time at school is the stuff of nightmares. The fanatical headmaster likes to whip the girls with switches when he’s not banishing them to isolation on “the pedestal of infamy.” The actress playing Young Jane (Amelia Clarkson) makes for a compelling pale, wide-eyed wastrel. Her performance and her physical similarity to Wasikowska goes a long way in establishing continuity between the two time periods.Now a young adult, Jane enters the employ of the mysterious and all-around cranky Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) as the governess to his ward, a French girl named Adele. It is only here, at Thornfield Hall, where Jane ever feels free and unburdened by masters who would seek to exploit or contain her. Although rude to his housekeeper (Judi Dench), Jane finds in Rochester an intellectual and spiritual equal. Jane and Rochester exchange jibes and witticisms in a few scenes that serve to establish a courtship based on mutual respect and understanding. They begin to fall in love. Everything seems to be going well, until strange ghostly cries ring out in the night. Unexplained fires are started. A houseguest is savagely attacked. Mr. Rochester’s behavior grows increasingly guilty and erratic. What ever could be going on, and what is Mr. Rochester hiding?
Jane Eyre adeptly balances its romantic moments with some legitimately spooky scenes. It’s a ghost story without a ghost. Instead, the landscape and the people themselves seem to be haunted by their histories. The film underlines these hauntings via diffused lighting, as if the whole movie has a veil of gauze over it, obscuring the characters’ clear view. Moorish fog and hearthfire smoke add to the murky milieu.
It’s almost impossible for the film to divest itself of the melodrama which characterizes the narrative and indeed, accounts for its longstanding popularity and eternal relevance although it is occasionally overwhelmed by swoony sentiment, particularly in the last act where incident piles upon incident to a tragic (and slightly hysterical) climax. But “Jane Eyre” is the quintessential Gothic romance and the cliched elements of its story–trudging across muddy moors! spooky, old estates! long-lost inheritances!–are handled deftly by screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Cary Fukunaga. Non-linear editing keeps the audience on its toes while deepening the mysterious elements of Jane’s story, never quite allowing us to get comfortable in any one space. The construction helps to keep the film swift moving, although at a little under two hours, still feels long in parts.
And, ultimately, it is the intelligence of the production–acting, writing, and directing–that makes Jane Eyre an enjoyable and exciting movie. Fukunaga’s oft-handheld camera is never satisfied to merely photograph staged readings of the classics. He imbues the production with the life of its time and place. The harsh landscape of Northern England’s purplish heather, brown bracken, gray stone estate determines the film’s aesthetic elements, from the costumes, to the interiors and even the lighting scheme. Aiding the visual immediacy, Wasikowska and Fassbender’s intimate grasp of Victorian language and mannerisms is skillfully parlayed into naturalistic modernism. The net result is a picture that deftly injects a well-worn story with fresh blood.
The film’s main asset is Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester. Any adaptation of Jane Eyre lives or dies on the believability of their romance and they are more than qualified to embody the archetypal tragic lovers.Whether brooding by the firelight or astride his majestic steed, Michael Fassbender’s Rochester is the classical Byronic hero, the kind of irresistible rogue girls have been falling for, for centuries. Even when Fassbender’s accent slips into the actor’s natural Irish lilt, the mistake only serves to deepen Mr. Rochester’s mysterious and mercurial temperament. Fassbender is properly roguish, although not very devilish; the actor’s earnestness and accessibility precludes an audience from condemning him too harshly even when Rochester’s actions are abhorrent. The character strikes the right level of attractive, repulsive and pitiable as befitting a man haunted by a tragic past.But as much as Mr. Rochester is the character we’re attracted to, Jane Eyre is telling the story. Stripped of the first-person narration present in the novel, Jane could have come across as aloof or inscrutable. Luckily, Wasikowska’s characterization allows for small moments of pride, self-satisfaction, even lust and desire to slip through Jane Eyre’s otherwise steely reserve. Jane Eyre is a strong-willed, uncompromising young woman with concrete ideals of self-respect and individualism that guide her through a cold and indifferent world. She’s frequently punished for her spirited, passionate nature, the same qualities that endear her so much to a 21st century audience. Jane is a proto-feminist icon, but Wasikowska plays her straight, without patronizing the character and forcing her into a “modern” iteration. Jane is as much a product of 19th century social restrictions as she is a heroine for our times. Wasikowska is a smart actress: she conveys Jane’s intelligence as she navigates each new challenge and fights to maintain her dignity against strange happenings and bleak odds.