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Jane Eyre (2011)

The other day, I was browsing Craigslist, as you do when it’s slow news day, and I came across an interesting ad. “Looking for governess prepared to live with an older man and cranky housekeeper on a desolate moor. Must be quiet yet obviously have repressed emotions of a sexual kind. Preference will be given a candidate who has suffered abuse as a child.” It reminded me how difficult it has been for our culture to get past Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It must be one of the most influential Gothic Romances ever written with an alarming number of big screen and television versions, and a whole shelf full of prequels, retellings and general literary inventions. What makes this all the more impressive is the way the story has crossed over cultural boundaries with screen versions from Mexico to Hong Kong to two different Indian language versions from Bollywood. Few other books can claim to have been the source of such a river of work.

Mia Wasikowska well met by candlelight

 

So here comes a new cinema version, this time with a new and relatively untested director at the helm. For such a “traditional” piece, it’s modestly daring to pick Cary Joji Fukunaga, an American of mixed Japanese and Swedish ancestry. The cross cultural influences grow even more marked with the casting of an Australian in the title role. Mia Wasikowska has been transplanted from Canberra via Wonderland to Yorkshire. Joining her is Michael Fassbender who manages to combine Germany and Ireland. The only principal character that’s been typecast is Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax. At least she could do the Yorkshire accent as if she’d been born to it.

Michael Fassbender looking soulful

 

As an aside, it was a delight to see Judi Dench in a full length role. Given her age at a sprightly 76, we’ve been limited to a few film cameos as she nuzzles Johnny Depp or sends out random actors to play the part of James Bond. Allowing for her continuing reputation as a great actress, it’s good to see her allowed to prove the point by occupying a pivotal role in another film destined to be “important”.

 

There’s little point in talking about the plot. If you haven’t got it by now, you’re unlikely to be queueing up to see this version. So let me make two mild observations. I’m not a fan of the framing device to come in two-thirds of the way through the action and then show the audience how we got there, before proceeding on to the end. In this case, it’s particularly inappropriate. It would have been better to show her arriving at Thornfield and then have flashbacks to show relevant parts of her childhood at Gateshead and Lowood School. Having a flashback to her arriving at Thornfield and then further flashbacks overworks the conceit. Second, it’s always a struggle to know how to edit the story down to a reasonable running length. Moira Buffini has produced a script that shoots at 120 minutes which is probably about right. But it emphasises the Gothic. In particular the portrayal of Lowood School is positively Dickensian and anyone not familiar with the original would wonder how Jane could emerge from such a place with anything other than physical and emotional scars. Yet she has the knowledge to work as a governess, speaking French and being well-versed in geography and other areas of human knowledge. There’s also no explanation of where she is staying with her cousin St. John Rivers and his two sisters. We might assume all Jane did was run a few miles across the moor. And talking about the running, the print of the film I saw had a very shaky hand-held capture of Jane running out of Thornfield. Hopefully, that will be remedied by the time the film gets to the UK.

Judi Dench showing us some nifty headgear

 

So where does all this leave us. Well the answer comes in two words, “deeply impressed”. I confess to going not expecting anything special and emerged feeling I had just seen something quite special. Mia Wasikowska gives a riveting performance as the conflicted Jane — she of the high moral standards but burdened with a heart that would melt for Rochester. The highlighting of Mr Brocklehurst as the chronically hypocritical headmaster of Lowood School gives a nicely balanced counterpoint to Rochester’s failure to be honest with Jane about his marital status. This is a very intelligent piece of acting as Mia Wasikowska contrives to make her silences eloquent, the camera always lingering long enough to catch every nuance. The relationship with Mrs Fairfax is also wonderfully filled out. Judi Dench was very generous when partnering Mia Wasikowska on screen. If there is a weakness, it’s in the time given to showing Rochester unwind. Physically, Michael Fassbender is exactly right and in so many ways, he picks up what he’s given and does it very well. But the development of the relationship with Jane is rushed. We know she’s supposed to fall for him and that’s what she does.

 

The house is wonderful as candlelight flickers and wooden planking creaks. Distant laughing and screams also disturb the nights. It’s nicely atmospheric with Rochester falling off his horse with great style. It honours the tradition of Jane Eyre as a Gothic Romance. More importantly, there’s at least an effort to deal with the Rivers situation, although the placement of Jane’s schoolroom on a blasted heath is a curious decision.

 

Overall, this is a terrific version of a classic piece of English literature. It’s properly respectful, but triumphs by allowing us a clear sight of Jane’s journey from repressed creature to warm human being. With more time, we could have seen more of Rochester and understand his motivation for courting Blanche Ingram. With modern attention spans being somewhat limited, we can understand why this version of Jane Eyre was cut down. Perhaps the Director’s Cut will have more when the DVD appears. Definitely recommended if only to watch Mia Wasikowska and Judi Dench fill the screen with quiet warmth!

 

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