Jane Eyre reanimated, again
There have been so many Jane Eyres on film and TV. Why do another? Obviously because the craving for this story lives on and there are always new, talented and ambitious people to redo it. It is the quintessential romance novel. We are far from the world of Jane Austen. No more young ladies being rational and sensible, exercising keen moral judgment to make proper marriage decisions, exhibiting good sense, irony and wit. Instead of being attractive and well placed, or attractive and undesirable, the man who emerges as irresistibly appealing is rich, but also dark, mysterious and dangerous. That’s a throwback to the earliest English novels (and there were plenty of scary Gothic tales in Jane Austen’s own era). The men in Samuel Richardson’s pioneering 18th-century romance novels were already dark and dangerous. But with a difference. Richardson’s gentlemen were 18th-century rakes, rich, heedless, and not to be trusted. Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester (though the name is that of a famous writer-rake who died in 1680) isn’t just dangerous. He’s tormented, and has a mysterious past. He not only can cause suffering. He suffers himself. And we feel for him.
Whether Cary Fukunaga, the talented young director, half Japanese-American, half-Swedish, from Oakland, California, is the best man to bring out this past, or Michael Fassbender, Irish-German, is the best man to play the role, are other questions. But this is a BBC production, with Jamie Bell, and Judy Dench. It looks good, it does the job, and it has an interesting lead actress. It may not dig as deep as the best Jane Eyres; but you may not realize that till later.
Besides the dark mystery man of romance, Miss Brontë gives us a Dickensian element too — the desperation of being poor and unloved; the possibility of having everything suddenly changed by inheritance or disinheritance or rejection. Jane Eyre is an orphan, abused and despised in the great house of an aunt (played by Sally Hawkins, so swathed in luxurious fabric that it tones her down). The aunt sends Jane off early to a charity school, where she endures even more Dickensian torments and humiliations, and the death of her best and only girl friend. She’s tough, she gets through, she learns skills, and the Jane who was played by Amelia Clarkson runs off into the hills and becomes Mia Wasikowska, an Australian actress whom nobody has much noticed. Well, actually that comes at the outset as a framing device, which is slightly confusing.
Mia Wasikowska as made up and costumed for the role of Jane Eyre has two qualities: she is plain, but she is distinguished. She has a flat, expressionless face, but she has a fine figure and a long neck and stands with dignity, poise, even a touch of elegance despite her severe dresses. St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) is the scrawny, but nice, minor cleric who rescues Jane. I found the chronology of the rescue confusing in this version. St. John seems to be putting Jane in charge of his new school for cottagers’ girls, when she’s shunted off to Mr. Rochester’s manse and set up at once by Judy Dench to be governess of a little French girl. How did that happen so fast? Much later, St. John wants to marry Jane, and that causes her to run back to Rochester. The back-and-forth, along with the initial flashback, are not handled with absolute clarity. At any rate at Mr. Rochester’s house matters cease to be Dickensian for Jane and become more complicated. As she teaches the little French girl, Jane gradually learns of the mysterious lord of the house who is often absent.
This is where, at a key moment, the excitement dissipates. The little French girl (Romy Settbon Moore) is not interesting. What’s worse, when they finally meet, sparks do not fly between Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. For the first half of his role Fassbender seems to be walking through his lines. He gradually grows into his part, building up a full head of emotion toward the latter scenes, but never grabs us in his early ones. While how good Mia Wasikowska is may surprise us despite her successes in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, Fassbender is a disappointment given his stunning previous work. He has been around for ten years, but his career took off with a searing performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, and he was equally thrilling to watch (and quite different each time) in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Tarantino’s Ingourious Basterds. Tough acts, indeed, to follow. And what’s worse, the seducer of the young girl Fassbender plays in Fish Tank blows away his Rochester — at very much the same game. The working class Irishman who sneaks into a teenager girl’s heart (and pants) by dating her mother is quite likely closer to what Fassbender knows (perhaps closer to what most of us know). Rochester is more truly a fantasy, and the filmmakers and the actor have not imagined him so well. Fassbender’s Rochester is (as Todd McCarthy puts it in The Hollywood Reporter) more “prosaic” than the dashing, scary ones (most famously Orson Welles), but while down to earth and real in this part, he lacks the dangerous sexiness he had in Fish Tank. This film version is primarily a portrait of Jane Eyre, luminously and as if by sheer force of will delineated for us by Mia Wasikowska. Rochester remains mostly a recessive figure.
The story calls for Rochester to be moody and drunken, but for Jane to be drawn to him, and him to her, nonetheless. And then she’s terribly jerked around. He talks of marrying her. And then he’s to marry a well-born young lady, who sings (Imogen Poots). And then he runs off with Jane, and then come the big quick shocks and surprises and — a kind of happy ending, and a a young female viewer’s whoosh of relief and ecstasy.
Not to damn this good film with nothing but reservations, I remind you that this is a grand BBC-style production with all the powerful machinery of British costume dramas, the great houses, the wet hills, the tight bodices (one of which Jane undoes against the light for our admiring eyes) the grand, prevailing darkness (somewhat softened here to go with Fassbender’s more humdrum hero), the candles and fires, the nice light on clear days. And above all the good English character actors. Viewers who like, or are ripe for, this story, will have quite a good time. But their world won’t necessarily be rocked as of yore.
Jane Eyre is out in UK cinemas 9th September 2011.
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Screenplay: Charlotte Brontë (novel), Moira Buffini (screenwriter)
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, MichaelFassbender, Jamie Bell
Runtime: 115 min