Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jane Eyre 2011: Sensuous and Magical

I wanted to see this newest version of Jane Eyre (2011, directed by Cary Fukinaga) much sooner. Ideally, I'd have had this review posted the first week of its release, but a trip to New Orleans, and several weeks of feeling downright consumptive thwarted me. That, and the need to actually write my dissertation.

That's all right though, because it turns out I was just waiting for the perfect day to see it. We're having a cold spring here in NYC. Cold and damp. Perfect weather for sitting down beside a fire in Thornfield hall, with a nice cup of tea to keep away the chill and mist. And that's one of the things I loved about this version of Jane Eyre. One of the first things that I noticed was that the actors made use of regional accents. I adore regional British accents. Using them brought another dimension to the characters that is certainly not present in every version of the story. I  think a lot of versions of Jane Eyre try to give a sense of place, given how dramatic the setting is in the novel, and how integral it is to the story in some cases. I felt that this version usually succeeded there, without going overboard. There were dramatic scenes of fog and wide shots of empty moors, but, I think realistically, there were also scenes of happy, sunny days and blossoming trees. Rather predictably, the weather usually corresponded to whatever was happening dramatically on screen. Incidentally, the film was shot entirely on location in Derbyshire, which is commonly thought to be the location of Thornfield (specifically North Lees Hall, Hathersage).

Other things that I thought really made this version stand out:

Namely, Mia Wasikowska as Jane.  I had only seen Ms. Wasikowska previously in last year's Alice in Wonderland, where I didn't pay that much attention to her acting, given how many distracting elements there were in that film (apparently she was also in Defiance, but I don't remember her). Here, I thought she was absolutely magical. Just by her facial expressions, she did an amazing job of conveying layers upon layers of inner passion and a highly active mind without saying a word. Wasikowska is quite attractive in "real life," but she did a good job of making Jane seem plain and insignificant in appearance, but very much alive on the inside. Sometimes here expressions are hard to read - but she is always thinking and feeling something. It is easy to see why Rochester describes her as having the look of another world about her. She effectively conveys Jane's inner restlessness as well - she's always looking off to the horizon, leaning over walls, and staring out windows - a spirit longing to break free. In fact, Jane's gaze is everywhere in this film. Several times, we see her looking fascinated at a sensuous nude painting at Thornfield - this is clearly done to indicate Jane''s inner desires in contrast to her outward composure, but it's an element I haven't seen before. It's also fully fitting given Jane's talent as an artist, and her love of capturing what is before her, whether in reality or in her mind's eye. Wasikowska seems to have a lot of film projects lined up for the near future, and I predict, and hope, great things for her. She also had some serious chemistry with Michael Fassbender as Rochester. In the scene right after Jane saves Rochester from the fire, one can (sorry to use such a cliche), feel the heat between them. It's almost painfully evident that he wants to kiss her, and she wants it too, but they don't, which is really for the best.

I liked Fassbender as Rochester, though I wasn't utterly convinced that he was inwardly tormented as some Rochesters are. He tells us that he is, but he seems quite normal and well-adjusted most of the time. I actually don't mind this - I'm quite fine with Rochester behaving for the most part like the proper early nineteenth-century gentleman of means that he is, and this works at making him a good contrast to the airy and other-worldly Jane. It makes the revelation of the crazy wife in the attic all the more scandalous. He also does a good job of conveying his love for Jane, and this Rochester seems less interested in torturing Jane with Blanche Ingram than others have, including the Rochester of the novel. I like this, as I never lied that aspect of his character.

Another unique thing about this film was that it started in medias res, which I knew would happen because a friend had told me, but it still felt unexpected. I am not sure how someone unfamiliar with the story would take it, though I think things became clear enough. One effect of choosing to tell the story this way, though, was that as viewers we meet St John Rivers (Jamie Bell, who incidentally was in Defiance with Wasikowska). before we meet Rochester. And St John seems like a rather nice, not bad looking bloke, if a little severe (he's not nearly as severe as he is in the novel).   Since we don't know Rochester yet, St John seems like an obvious choice of husband for Jane, and not at all a bad one. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say here that I have never liked St John in the novel. I have my issues with Rochester at times, but St John just creeps me out. However, I do come to respect him and see some parallels between him and Jane, as they both struggle with passion and duty. Though Jane ultimately chooses not to marry St John and returns to Rochester, she nevertheless keeps up a friendship and correspondence with him. In the film, no such hint of a friendship is given, as unfortunately, St John turns petulant and rather nasty once Jane rejects his proposal. 

A few things I didn't like - the exclusion of Miss Temple AGAIN (she's listed in the credits as being played by Edwina Elek, but I certainly didn't notice her and I was looking). I complained about this in my last review, of the 1943 Jane Eyre. Miss Temple is the reason Jane became a teacher at Lowood - she is responsible for nurturing Jane's intelligence and talents, and her influence is hugely formative. The film would have the viewer believe that Thornfield is the first place where Jane is ever treated kindly (save for her friendship with Helen Burns). Jane's friendship with Helen is beautifully done, with both child actresses doing a good job. Helen is clearly Jane's first love - they are utterly devoted to one another.

Also, I know it's not easy to swallow that when Jane leaves Thornfield, she lands as if by magic on the doorstep of her long lost relatives. I get that. It's problematic in the book, but I accept it, because I read Jane Eyre as half fairy-tale, in which case what happens is perfectly logical. I fully understood the desire of the filmmakers to leave out the blood relationship between Jane and the Rivers family. However, I think not having it makes the story in some ways more problematic. Once Jane inherits her fortune, she shares it equally amongst St John and his sisters. In the novel, she and they are able to justify this on the grounds that they are her relatives. They can honorably accept Jane's extreme generosity because there is the hint that a wrong was done them in the will, and had things been as they ought, they would have all been sharing in the fortune equally. In this film, my nineteenth century sensibility freaked out a little at them so willingly accepting 3/4 of Jane's inheritance given that she is not a relation, and they are in no way entitled to it, and shouldn't have accepted no matter how much Jane wanted honorary siblings. Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive about these matters - I'm not really an inheritance expert - but it rang false to me.

These are small quibbles, though. Overall, I really enjoyed this adaptation, and thought it did have some new things to add. A few miscellaneous things - Judi Dench was wonderful as always in her role as Mrs. Fairfax, though she was a bit wasted here. I liked how the script made clear that Mrs. Fairfax didn't know Bertha was Rochester's wife, though. I think this is ambiguous a lot of times, and so I often question her character. We never see Bertha (Italian actress Valentina Cervi) at all until Rochester shows her to Jane et al right after their wedding is curtailed. In other versions, we see glimpses of Bertha earlier, though this time we only heard her. I am not sure what my preference is here. The film did not include the evening before Jane's wedding, and if it had we may have seen Bertha. Maybe it was more effective to wait. This is something I'll be thinking about in viewin subsequent films, though.

All in all, this was a very solid and sometimes magical production, largely aided by the talents and screen presence of Mia Wasikowska. I suggest trying to see it in theaters if possible (and soon, as I don't think it will be around long).

Tomorrow I should receive copies of both the 1934 and 1996 films, and will have a review of one of them up over the weekend, I hope. I will also continue with my reread of the novel soon - stay tuned!

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