It is perhaps a sign of the times that this new adaptation of Jane Eyre is a triumph of craftsmanship and ambiance. Today’s audiences are accustomed to spectacle – look at the box office returns of the Transformers films or Tron: Legacy and tell me I’m wrong. What director Cary Fukunaga does so well this film is play up the atmosphere of Victorian melodrama; the gothic manors, the tormented characters, and the scenes of darkness and fog and desolation are right on the money. One must also give credit to cinematographer Adriano Goldman, costume designer Michael O’Conner, production designer Will Hughes-Jones, and composer Dario Marianelli, whose solemn violin dirges seem to float in the air like feathers caught in the wind.
But I’m making this sound like a film that’s all style and no substance. The plot is perhaps a bit condensed (there is, after all, only so much time an audience is willing to sit in a movie theater), but the themes of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel remain perfectly intact. The story is one of maturation, resilience, and self reliance, and while such stories are hardly original, there is something immensely satisfying about a female character working her way through a male-dominated society. The novel itself was groundbreaking in its positive depiction of a female protagonist; this was back when such characters were typically either angelic creatures or undisciplined madwomen. Although Brontë published the novel as an autobiography under the ambiguous pen name Currer Bell, it remains to this day an influential work of early feminist fiction.
The depiction of the title character hasn’t much changed. She is outspoken and intelligent, a young woman of high morals who desires nothing more than a full life. In spite of her bleak childhood – an aunt who despised her, a pious boarding school where she was regularly beaten and humiliated, the death of her best friend – she lives in the moment and learns to hold no grudges. As portrayed in the film by Mia Wasikowska, there’s an appropriate balance between Jane Eyre’s determination and her nondescript appearance; when it comes to striking physical features, only her eyes are noticeable, not because of makeup but because they truly do reveal the person within. Wasikowska is not classically beautiful – compared to, say, Elizabeth Taylor or Angelina Jolie – but she has proven herself remarkably adaptable when it comes to her roles (between Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right, you’d swear two different actresses had been cast).
The crux of the story is her relationship with Edward Rochester (Michael Fassenbender), a reliably Byronic character whose “ill humor” masks deep regret and the capacity to love. He is the wealthy master of Thornfield Manor and has been saddled with a ward, an emotional but innocent French girl named Adèle (Romy Settbon Moore). Although Jane is hired as the young girl’s governess, she and Rochester don’t officially meet until he falls off his horse, spraining his ankle. The two soon begin having regular fireside conversations, where it’s made abundantly clear that he doesn’t see Jane as a mere servant; he finds her honesty, independence, and morality intriguing, and he allows her to speak to him as an equal. Their complicated relationship escalates to love, but a secret threatens to tear them apart, one that ties into strange, almost supernatural occurrences. Why do thuds emanate from the walls every night? How did a fire start in Rochester’s bedroom?
The novel is so well known, and there have been over twenty film adaptations, so I’m fairly certain we all by now know what the secret is. Regardless, I will refrain from revealing it. I will say that, given the nature of Victorian novels, especially one with gothic influences, the secret couldn’t be more appropriate. This version depicts it tragically rather than horrifically, in effect earning the audience’s sympathy. Keeping a distant but watchful eye over the situation is the Thornfield housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), who treats Jane kindly but urges caution when it comes to Rochester. Apart from Jane, she’s the film’s best character.
The film is structured non-linearly; it opens with Jane running away from Thornfield and arriving near death at the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. We then see snippets of her childhood, first in the home of her spiteful aunt, Sarah Reed (Sally Hawkins), then at Lowood School, where the young girls have the fear of God literally beaten into them. Jane’s relationship with St. John is the weakest subplot; although there are parallels between what they share and what Jane shared with Rochester, not enough time is spent on it to make it clear. That being said, Bell does a fantastic job as the decent but reserved and single-minded clergyman, and his delivery compliments Wasikowska’s nicely (perhaps they developed this chemistry working together in Defiance). Overall, 2011’s Jane Eyre is a fine piece of work – more gothic in tone and at times a bit moody, but strong in character and theme.
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