Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Judi Dench,
(US theatrical: 8 Apr 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 8 Apr 2011 (General release); 2011)
Some stories deserve retelling because of what they say about the human condition. Others wear their classical cache upon a well reasoned bit of consensus. And then there is Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s proto-proto-feminist tract about a victimized young girl and her desire to break free of the strict Victorian roles (and ridicules) placed on her. Starting as an orphan in a loveless home, moved to a masochistic school for the wayward, and ending up the Governess for a gloomy lunatic asylum like estate owned by the very embodiment of ‘tall, dark, brooding, and mysterious’, our heroine struggles to see something good in her valley of unending darkness. Arguing for her worth as a human being first, without the unnecessary social label as female, Bronte’s Jane is Job without all the meandering religious falderal. And just like this latest cinematic adaptation of same, it’s an introduction to empowerment, albeit a weak and walleyed overture.
In this version, Jane is played by former Burton Alice Mia Wasikowska and the several hundred page story has been streamlined to hit the high points. We still get the repellant Aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), who takes the young charge in and then systematically tries to destroy her spirit. We get a longer sequence at the charity school Lowood where our heroine meets and then quickly loses a new friend. Then there’s the inevitable arrival at Thornfield Hall, the manor of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) and his innumerable secrets. After being set up by housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Dame Judi Dench) and understanding her duties with tiny French girl Adele, Jane begins the process of conformity. It does not fit her. Eventually falling for Mr. Rochester and then learning the horrific truth about Thornfield, she runs away, ending up in the home of a young reverend (Jamie Bell) who wants Jane for his own. Decisions…decisions…
First, the good news. This version of Jane Eyre, perhaps the 11th or 12th in the history of the film/TV medium, is one of the few to focus almost exclusively on the Gothic horror subtext of the story. Bronte wrote the book at a time when such sensationalized elements were popular, and the truth about Mr. Rochester and the noises that frequent the late nights on his estate are front and center here. Ms. Wasikowska spends a lot of time roaming through darkened corridors, a single candle flame lighting her frightened face. Shadows creep across wall and distant wails can be heard in the shimmer of the moon. Similarly, the last act denouement where the truth is finally revealed has the feel of Roger Corman meeting Dario Argento. It’s all flash and fire, spectral visions and proper attire chaos. Director Cary Fukunaga, who made a splash with the Sundance sensation Sin Nombre, paces the film perfectly, making sure we never miss a necessary narrative beat or sly supernatural allusion.
Then there are the performances. Ms. Wasikowska has to do a lot of the heavy lifting here, and she’s up to the task for most of the movie. We really never see Jane ‘falling’ for Mr. Rochester so much as infer it from our previous knowledge of the tale. Similarly, her grit and determination seems to come more from the surroundings (especially her escape along a chilly windswept coastline) than the actual acting. Fassbender chews a lot of scenery, making his brooding noble a clever contradiction in terms. In a very small part, Ms. Hawkins makes a major impression, and there is never a bum step in Dame Judi’s subservient journey. Indeed, Jane Eyre is peppered with a lot of interesting turns and tricks. Fukunaga doesn’t go for sport and splash. Instead, it’s all about a controlled slow burn and the results stand and speak for themselves.
So, where does Jane Eyre fail, in particular? Why is it just a so-so entertainment when it sounds like a soon-to-be-crowned masterwork? The issue is personal, and one of previous acquaintance. Unless you spent your high school and college days in a cloud of social calendar obligations, you learned of the Bronte Sisters, their contributions to the artform known as “the novel” (Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Wuthering Heights), and your professor’s stoic desire to discuss each and every one of them into the contextual ground. You know all the symbolism stored in Jane’s struggle. You get the various then contemporary commentaries and marvel at the maturity in both character and composition style. Let’s face it, you’ve been tested, taunted, and teased over this kind of material, making it almost second nature.
So the problem here is one of newness and novelty. Those who wouldn’t know this take from the famed SCTV spoof “Jane Eyrehead” will be able to enjoy it with a fresh perspective, but just like the halls of Thornfield, ghosts from past adaptations haunt his update. Some will remember the excellent 1944 version which featured Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane. Others have a soft spot for the 1970 version with George C. Scott and Susannah York, or the Franco Zeffireli adaption with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. All have their fame and their flaws, and none could completely capture everything that Bronte was trying express. But just like any overdone concept, familiarity breeds a seed of contempt. No matter how good it is - and it is, for the most part - this Jane Eyre can’t help but suffer from a similar disdain.
If all of this seems like a massive burden on the back of Fuknaga and his cast…well, it is. It’s the yoke anyone who brings the traditional back to the fore must carry. The same could be - and will be - said whenever Shakespeare is again thrust before the cameras, or if yet another shot at one young lady’s adventures in Wonderland (or Oz) are ever attempted. We seen this all before - not better, but at least as good. While it may not be fair to disrespect a film for being forged out of well worn facets, this latest Jane Eyre can’t help but suffer. It’s not a failure, it’s just not a revelation worthy of a revisit.