Saturday, April 2, 2011

Short excerpt from an interview with Mia Wasikowska on the 2011 Jane Eyre

I really like what she says about the film getting Jane's age right. Jane's youth really does come through in the film.

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!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Jane Eyre of 1943: Gothic Grandeur, Musical Bombast, and an American Rochester

I think I've seen this film before. Really - I am fairly certain I saw it many, many years ago at some point in my formative years, but I didn't retain any clear recollections of it. When I saw it again last night, though, it felt very familiar, and I don't think it was just because of the story, with which the filmmakers took many liberties.

Visually, the 1943 Jane Eyre is striking, and hence memorable. It makes great symbolic use of light and shade in ways that I think can only happen in the black and white medium. Whether it is the sunlight that illuminates the gardens at Thornfield while Jane walks with Rochester, or the dark recesses of the house itself, from which people emerge seamlessly and without warning, the play of light and dark both sets mood and serves as a foreshadowing device, along with the sometimes-intrusive musical score. Rochester's face is often partially concealed in shadows, while Jane's rarely is. She is clearly a figure of salvation for Rochester in this film. The photography, too, tells stories, filming rooms so that they feel claustrophobic, with shadows resembling prison bars lining the floors. An incredibly effective scene is the point at which lightning strikes the chestnut tree in two, as Rochester and Jane defiantly declare their love and kiss in the thunder storm.Thornfield itself is only filmed in close ups, so that we never get expansive shots of the house from the outside, but rather intimate details of its Gothic features, so that it resembles a fortress more than a stately home. Of course, Thonrfield is a crumbling fortress shrouded in mist, and it will collapse in a blaze, but once this is accomplished, wide open spaces are left, letting in light and sky, and the final shot of the film is a long view of Rochester and Jane walking arm and arm in the distance, looking out at the wide open prospect before them. One could say a lot about how light and shadow relate to Rochester and Jane's personalities, and the darkness of the house to Rochester's spiritual blindness, which of course becomes physical blindness for a time.

Walking amidst all of this striking scenery are Joan Fontaine as Jane, and Orson Wells as Rochester. Fontaine was a much bigger star than Wells at the time of filming, but David O. Selznick (of Gone with the Wind fame) initially was heavily involved with the production of Jane Eyre before abandoning it because of its similarities to another recent project of his, Rebecca. Selznick insisted on casting Wells in the role of Rochester, and pushed for his casting even after Selznick himself was no longer involved with the film. Wells had gained instant fame with the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, and critical acclaim for Citizen Kane in 1941, but his films had all lately been financial failures. He was currently unemployable as a director, and had decided to focus on acting. And his acting really isn't bad in Jane Eyre. While I have read complaints that he overacts, I don't think his acting style is terribly different from many other actors in the period. His accent feels a little out of place at first, but I got used to it. At least he didn't try to do a Yorkshire accent (not that I wouldn't want one, but I think it would have jarred in an old Hollywood film, especially coming from an American actor). I found his performance engrossing, and more interesting than Fontaine's. It's not that I don't appreciate subtle acting - I do - but I found Fontaine fairly one-note, as I have in other films as well. She wasn't bad, though. She is a very beautiful woman, but did a lovely job of convincing the audience that she considered herself plain. I didn't always find her love for Rochester believable, but that is at least partly the fault of the script.

Ah, the script. I fully expect adaptations from this era of film making to take liberties with the their source material. I saw Wuthering Heights (the one with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff) as a kid, and when I got older and read the book, was shocked to find that there was a whole second generation, and Heathcliff wasn't at all the sort of man I'd like for a boyfriend, and in fact was rather horrible to everyone around him. But I digress (I'll do that from time to time). I must say at some points I felt a little sad about some of the exclusions, though. Some of the cuts were certainly for the sake of brevity, but some simply showed a sadly limited understanding of one of the most beautiful parts of the novel, the female friendships and mentor/student relationships. The film spends a painfully short time on Jane's life at Lowood School, and I really felt the absences of Miss Temple, and the shortened role of Helen Burns. Helen is played luminously by a young Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited role, and her time is short but effective. Miss Temple, however, was completely absent. In the novel, she is Jane's mentor and a mother-figure that Jane had lacked up until that point in her life. She was instrumental in Jane's intellectual and social development. Instead of Miss Temple, Jane receives spiritual guidance from a doctor named Dr. Rivers. He clearly fills in for the later absence of the character of St John Rivers, Jane's spiritually rigid cousin. Dr. Rivers is kind, especially compared to the tyrannical Brocklehurst, but he consistently reminds Jane of her duty, at the expense of following her passions. He is St John slightly mellowed and placed as a doctor at a girl's boarding school. Furthermore, Brocklehurst is never ousted as he is in the novel, and Jane's decision to leave Lowood at eighteen comes from a desire to escape Brocklehurst and all he stands for rather than to embrace her independence as in the novel. These decisions are not terribly shocking, given the gender politics of the period, and the male-dominated film studios, but they are revealing, and a little bit disappointing.

One other major cut is Jane's experience in the Red Room. At the beginning of the film, Jane appears to be locked in a closet for fighting with her cousin John Reed (Eliza and Georgiana don't exist). This is another major formative experience that seems to be lacking, but the idea that Jane has had a cruel childhood is still present, with her nasty Aunt Reed (played wonderfully by Agnes Moorehead), and bratty cousin.

I've spent a lot of time on things that weren't in the film, and haven't covered nearly all of the cuts. There was a lot there, though, and what was there mostly worked. Blanche Ingram was delightfully snooty, and looked a bit like a Hollywood starlet, with fat sausage curls, platinum blonde hair, and painted on eyebrows.

Bertha Rochester we only glimpse once, but her appearance is affective. She emerges from the shadows quickly, almost supernaturally. Some later films have humanized Bertha's plight more, and that's as it should be. Her portrayal here fits in well with the general brooding, haunted atmosphere of this version of Thornfield.

All in all, this adaptation is definitely worth seeing, if only to see a 1940s take on Jane Eyre. The visuals alone are captivating, but the story is different enough to other Jane Eyre adaptations that it shouldn't feel repetitive.

If you decide to get the DVD, be sure to watch some of the extras, including the original theatrical trailer, and a featurette about Wells and Robert Stevenson, the director (who went on to make a lot of money for Disney, directing Mary Poppins and many other Disney films). One of my favorite extras didn't have to do with Jane Eyre at all, but was instead a forty-five minute film put out but the U.S. War Department, and called Know Your Ally: Britain (included in its entirety below). Stevenson directed it, having joined the army after completing work on Jane Eyre. While this little documentary is informative and serious at times, the beginning is absolutely hilarious and a must-see.

       Clip from Jane Eyre:

Know Your Ally: Britain

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reading Jane Eyre for the Fifth Time

As part of my Jane Eyre film viewing experience, I thought it would be a good idea to reread the novel. After thinking about it a bit, I realized that this is my fifth read of Jane Eyre. I think. I once had a high school teacher who said he reread the novel every summer, and had been doing so for decades, from the sounds of it. I don't think I'll ever quite get there, but there are novels I go back to a lot, whether for school, for teaching, or for personal reasons. Austen's Persuasion is one of them, as is Forster's A Room With a View, and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and of course Jane Eyre. There's something comforting about rereading a novel for the third or fifth or seventh time. The characters become like old friends, and even certain pages become comforting and familiar. And sometimes I even get so caught up in the story that I irrationally forget that I've read the novel five of six times, and still feel suspense, or hope that certain things will turn out differently this time. Like maybe Rochester could just tell the truth about Bertha before attempting to marry Jane, and they could just discuss it in a calm and rational way and figure out a viable solution? But that wouldn't make for a very exciting or effective novel, I suppose.
So today I began my reread. I'm only reading a bit at a time, so I've read the preface through Volume 1, chapter 2, and since I don't want to make this post too long, I'm just going to get into the preface here. The preface is to the second edition of the novel, and Bronte's identity was still a mystery to the public. Jane Eyre had received mostly positive reviews from critics when it was first published, but there were a few detractors, including the conservative Quarterly Review, the same publication that had savaged Keats twenty years before. The Quarterly had this to say, in an unsigned review by Elizabeth Rigby: "We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre." So while most reviews responded positively to the novel's realistic portrayal of psychological depth, there were those who criticized it on moral and religious grounds, and for its spirit of rebellion (though oddly enough, the Roman Catholic Tablet praised the novel as a "healthful exercise").

In her preface, Bronte thanked her critics but also made a point of responding to the "carping few" who criticized the novel on religious and moral grounds. Her response is pointedly anti-hypocrisy: "Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns." Jane Eyre is not a kind novel to hypocrites. That's plain enough from the first few chapters, in which the Reeds are obvious hypocrites, and more complexly rendered later in the character of St John Rivers. Jane and Rochester are both rebellions, and morally complicated, but Jane is able to see hypocrisy clearly, and doesn't hesitate to point it out. I'll discuss this further when I do my post about chapters one and two. I have a lot to say about the Reeds (they are the nineteenth-century version of the Dursleys!), so I'm going to make my next book post about them, and move through the novel from there.

One other note of interest about the preface - Bronte spends a good portion of it praising Thackeray and Vanity Fair, and proceeds to dedicate the second edition of Jane Eyre to him. Unfortunately, Bronte didn't know that Thackeray's wife was suffered from insanity, and her dedication sparked rumors that Jane Eyre was actually written by the governess in the Thackeray household. Yikes!

So, since this blog is largely going to be about film, I picked up the 1943 version of Jane Eyre, starring Orson Wells and Joan Fontaine. Look out for that post soon! There's a small chance I'll get to see the new film this weekend as well, and I'll definitely post my review here if I do. Either way, I'll be seeing it soon. Watch this space!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


This blog stems from an idea I've had for a few years, and just never got around to doing before now. It combines my love of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel Jane Eyre with my love for cinema and period dramas, especially period dramas based on nineteenth-century British novels. I've read quite a few novels and I've seen quite a few period dramas. The 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility changed my life. I was fifteen years old and it was my introduction to Austen. My life was never the same, and my love affair with Brit Lit and costume dramas had begun (I've since joined a Facebook group called "Jane Austen Gave Me Unrealistic Expectations of Love). The following year I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. My teen angst preferred Wuthering Heights, but it's Jane who has consistently spoken to me over the years. I read Jane Eyre again in college and yet again in grad school, and each time it's given me something new and I've found new reasons to love it. As my love for nineteenth-century fiction has grown over the years, so has the number of film adaptations I've seen.

This particular project came into my head when I rewatched the 1940 adaptation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. I had seen it and loved it in high school, but recently was struck by just how deliberately different it was from the novel (the shift from the early to mid-nineteenth century and its very poofy skirts the least of the differences). I began to think about why this worked in a film in 1940 and how subsequent adaptations had fit with their time, how the values of novels, especially classic, beloved novels are reinterpreted and re-appropriated for different generations of readers and viewers. This isn't a particularly striking revelation, and the same can be said for literary criticism, theater, and a whole host of genres and media.    

So why Jane Eyre? Well, Pride and Prejudice has certainly had a glut of film interpretations and reimaginings in recent years, and some of them have been a lot of fun. However, a quick IMDB search reveals that over the past century there have been far more adaptations of Jane Eyre, starting a lot earlier. Twenty-two in fact, including two in 1910! There has been a Jane Eyre musical, and literary responses like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (and Jasper Fforde's fun and surreal The Eyre Affair), and now a new film version is coming out this week. I think Jane resonates with people because she's such an honest, real, flawed heroine. She's an underdog who triumphs, but not always in ways one would expect. She is a strong female heroine in a twisted Cinderella plot. Jane's contradictions, struggles, and honesty make her a protagonist to whom many of us can relate. In this blog I will be exploring all of these adaptations, but most especially the films. I have no illusions that all of these movies will be available, but I'm sure going to try! At the same time, I'll be rereading the novel and blogging about it as I go along.

I hope this blog will be a fun environment for anyone interested in period drama or Brit Lit. Please respond, subscribe, contribute, and suggest! I'd especially love leads to information about hard-to-find films or little-known adaptations. Welcome, and enjoy!