Hey, ladies! Did your man make you sit through Battle Los Angeles? Did he spend the whole time going, “Oh Hell yeah!” every time something exploded? Did he insist on repeatedly going, “Hoorah!” after the movie ended?
You want to get revenge? Well, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go up to him and you’re going to tell him, in the sweetest way possible, that he’s going to take you to see the latest film adaptation of Jane Eyre. Tell him that this is a revisionist take on the story and that its full of scenes of lesbian flirtation between Jane and Helen. Of course, that’s a lie but this is the same guy who just gave you a card for Valentine’s Day. You don’t owe him a damn thing.
And who knows? He might find something to enjoy in Jane Eyre because it’s one of the best films of 2011 so far. (Though I doubt it because Jane Eyre really is an unapologetic chick flick.)
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of those books that has a timeless appeal to it. I don’t know if it was the first novel to feature a young governess isolated in a creepy mansion but it certainly set the standard that all other gothic romances would have to meet. The first film version was a silent film from 1910 and since then, Jane Eyre and the enigmatic Mr. Rochester have been played by everyone from Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles to Susannah York and George C. Scott to Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. In this latest version, Jane is played Mia Wasikowska and Rochester by Michael Fassebender and the end result is probably the best film version of Jane Eyre to date.
With a few notable exceptions, the film is faithful to Bronte’s book. Jane is an orphan who, after being mistreated by her wealthy aunt (Sally Hawkins, cast very much against type), is sent away to a “charity school” where she is again mistreated and abused until finally, she turns 18 and she leaves the school to take a job as the governess for a young French girl named Adele (Romy Settbon Moore). Adele is the ward of the mysterious, arrogant, surly, but oh so hot Mr. Rochester. Though Rochester is, at first, a rather fearsome employer, he soon starts to warm up to Jane and the two of them defy the 19th century class system by falling in love. However, not everything is perfect. Jane discovers that Rochester has secrets of his own and then there’s the constant sound of footsteps and moaning that seem to echo through the old mansion late at night. Fires are mysteriously set. A guest is savagely attacked in his sleep. When Jane discovers the truth, she also discovers that nothing is as perfect as it seems.
One reason why the original novel has remained such an important work (and one that is still readable as opposed to say, The Scarlet Letter) is because Bronte used her narrative to tell several different stories. Me, I’ve always related to the character of Jane and her struggle to maintain her independence in a society where women are not encouraged to think for themselves. Others see the story as an early soap opera, a melodramatic romance in which true love conquers all. There’s also an argument to be made that the book is primarily meant to be an examination of the 19th century British class system. Of course, if that’s all a bit too much for you, you can always just read Jane Eyre as an early “haunted house” story.
The genius of this latest film adaptation is to be found in the way that director Cary Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini brings all of these various themes to life while still crafting a compelling and entertaining movie out of them. Perhaps the biggest change they made is to begin their film near the book’s conclusion. They then proceed to tell the story of Jane’s childhood and romance with Rochester through flashback, a move that recreates the book’s ground-breaking 1st person narration (ground breaking because, before Jane Eyre, it was rare that any female character was allowed to tell her own tale). While some may complain that the 1st half of the book is pretty much reduced down to 15 minutes of screen time, Fukunaga and Buffini pick their scenes carefully and, most importantly. the essence of Bronte’s narrative comes through if not the exact details.
As a director, Fukunaga plays up the gothic aspects of the story. Whenever Jane ventures outside, the skies are overcast and you can almost literally feel the chill of a desolate wind. Meanwhile, the interior scenes are so full of menacing shadows and expressionistic camera angles that Fukunaga’s film almost feels like the noir version of Jane Eyre. By doing so, this Jane Eyre becomes not just a prototypical gothic love story but instead, it becomes a true coming-of-age story with the mysteries of Mr. Rochester coming to symbolize the mysteries of life itself.
Fukanaga is helped by some excellent performances. Jamie Bell and Judi Dench — playing a clergyman and a housekeeper respectfully — both bring life to characters that have been reduced to stereotypes in previous versions of this story. Fassebender is a perfect Rochester, displaying both strength and weakness in equally believable measures. However, the film’s success or failure obviously lies with Mia Wasikowska’s performance in the title role and this is Jane Eyre’s crowning triumph. Wasikowska gives a fiercely, intelligent performance. Her Jane is strong-willed, indepedent, and intelligent without ever becoming so idealized as to be unbelievable. If Jane Eyre was the first strong woman to appear in literature, Wasikowska gives a performance that is equally strong. There have been over 20 Jane Eyres since 1910 and Mia Wasikowska may very well be the best.