Jane Eyre (2011)
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Although there have been, according the The Internet Movie Database, 23 film versions of Charlotte Brontë‘s famed Jane Eyre, I have to admit that Cary Fukunaga‘s 2011 film was my first. I feel fortunate to have started here, as this was an excellent film that seemed to play the usual tropes of long-suffering romance just right. Even better than Jane Campion‘s charm-free “Bright Star” from last year, “Jane Eyre” seemed to hide its actual romance in stolen glances and distant regard. Most films that deal with chaste Victorian-era romances seem to tell the audience that the characters have a strong intelligent regard for one another, but we don’t necessarily feel it. “Jane Eyre,” with its smoky backgrounds, echoey, deep photography, and contemplative silences, allows the audience to actually be drawn into the steeltrap minds of the unspeaking characters. It is a triumph of subtle acting and stellar direction leading better than pat dialogue and sappy imagery.
The story, for those who don’t know it: Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska), tragically orpahaned, and hated by her sourpuss aunt (Sally Hawkins), was raised in a boarding school by a series of hateful and dour taskmasters, who regularly beat the girls. Through it all, she remained quietly obedient, and dutifully efficient, but fostered a deeply-felt sense of compassion. Upon graduation, she is hired to be the governess of a bratty French girl in the staggeringly remote mansion of Lord Rochester (Michael Fassbender), a deep-eyed man with a horribly obnoxious Byronic attitude. Jane proves herself to be just as dutiful and loyal as she was as school, and is well-approved by the biddyish housekeeper (Judi Dench). More than that, though, she finds herself oddly drawn to the intellectual prodding of Lord Rochester. He often grilled her, and her calm reserve in her answers reveals a great deal of rapport between the two. This is a film where what is not said says more than what is.
There is also a palpable and creepy cloud of fear hanging over the manor. There are mysterious fires in the night, odd thumping noises from the walls, and Lord Rochester’s enigmatic vanishings. Is the manor haunted, Jane wonders? She has grown up with the fear of ghosts misting about her, and all she can think of are supernatural horrors.
Eventually, Lord Rochester, poised to wed a shallow debutante, confesses his feeling for Jane, and the plot takes an unexpected turn. In case you haven’t read the book, I won’t tell you what happens next, suffice to say that it has something to do with the manor’s ghost.
There is also a bookend story, where we see the rain-soaked Jane found and adopted by a wealthy local (Jamie Bell), and her mysterious refusal to reveal her backstory. She does, however, manage to find a newfound place for herself in this new world.
But this is not a film about it’s big reveal, nor is it a mystery story. My guess is that Fukunaga assumed you knew the twists in the tale, and chose, instead, to focus on the relationship between Jane and Rochester. The result, then, is a relationship that we actually believe. One that’s based on real intellectual respect, and not on plot contrivances or callow romantic fantasy. It’s a romance that feels, well, romantic. What a relief to be freed of the bonds of filmmakers who take the mildly farcical Jane Austen so seriously, and released into a world of real humanity as filtered through great literature.
In their roles, Wasikowska and Fassbender are excellent, and manage to prop up most of the film. Ina story about people’s inner workings, it’s grand to have actors who can say so much with their expressions. Wasikowska, with her pale mask and frightened lips, prjects her character merely by sitting still. Fassbender seems to transform from a broody asshole into a softened lover without any noticeable shift in character.
If you’ve not seen any “Jane Eyre” films in the past, I encourage you to start with this one.