Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jane Eyre: a review

On Sunday BW and I went to Chicago for a screening of the new Jane Eyre. I’ll give more details on the whole experience later, but for now I’ll content myself with reviewing the movie itself. It honestly was the best version I have seen, and I’ve seen all but the silent film versions and foreign adaptations.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane via Focus Features trailer
The acting was superb. Mia Wasikowska was spot-on for Jane as a character, with all of the quiet strength and depth of emotion necessary. On a more superficial level, of all Jane Eyres past and present, Wasikowska best fits the plain-Jane image of the novel (Charlotte Gainsbourg [1996] would be runner-up in this category, I think). What I mean to say is, though neither actress is in any way unattractive, each manages, in my opinion, to give off the air of youth and simpleness that gives Jane her unorthodox brand of beauty. Wasikowska also spoke after the screening about the way the costume department helped her understand Jane and stay in character, pointing especially to the painfully-restricting corset and the makeup—Oh wait, she said, there was no makeup. But by avoiding the glamorous look usually given to the lead actress in this film—think especially of Joan Fontaine in the 1943 version—the film manages to let Wasikowska’s more subtle beauty shine through, and gives her expressions center stage.

Typically in a Jane Eyre production, the heroine (and title character!) is far overshadowed by the hero. I’ll even confess to identifying film versions by male lead, not by year—it’s the Timothy Dalton version, or the Orson Welles version, or, as the most recent (and rabid) generation of Jane Eyre fanatics would say, it’s the Toby Stephens version. For further evidence, we can point to the way in which the man who plays Rochester also is often the movie’s producer—George C. Scott (1970), for example, saw the story as what it had become, a vehicle for the leading man’s talents, instead of what it is, the life story of a quiet governess.

In this movie, however, Wasikowska helps Jane reclaim her spot as the star in her own story. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Samantha Morton (1997) beautifully captured Jane’s sadness, but not her joy or the playfulness. Wasikowska grasps it all. She holds her own against Rochester, and more, makes her own scenes equally compelling. We’re as entranced by scenes of her alone as we are by the love scenes.

Michael Fassbender as Rochester via Focus Features
Which is saying quite a bit, as Michael Fassbender may be the best Rochester to date (Orson Welles alone can tie him; comparing the two is easy and natural, as director Cary Fukunaga used the 1944 version as his inspiration and model). I loved seeing Fassbender’s interpretation of the dialogue—language I’ve read so much, I’ve memorized. Fassbender managed to make it new again, adding inflection to a sentence, or a meaningful pause, or a powerful look, and changing the meaning altogether and making me go back to the book to read those passages again. Especially strong were the most emotional scenes—when Jane leaves, and again when she returns. Let me say here that this version most deftly handles chapter 27, a scene many films gloss over (most horribly with William Hurt, and excepting Timothy Dalton [1983]). Both scenes were incredibly moving in this version, but the final scene best showcased Fassbender’s acting. The script gives him very few words and the plot leaves him blind and vulnerable, but he still managed to convey very distinct and ranging emotions. Though I don’t tend to prefer versions that fade to black directly after the couple’s reunion, Fassbender’s powerful acting in that scene made it the best possible way to end the film. 

He also makes Rochester more playful than any of his predecessors, so much so that the audience at the screening (myself included) often laughed aloud. I can’t ever remember laughing during any other version. Somehow, Fassbender and Wasikowska’s ability to highlight a lighter side of their relationship in the midst of a very dark story made each end of the emotional spectrum more powerful, and the movie more enjoyable.

Along the same lines, this film has none of the awkward moments of other versions—Michael Jayston’s off-putting mascara (1973), Samantha Morton’s terrible kissing and Ciaran Hinds’ mouth-mauling, William Hurt’s saliva strings, Timothy Dalton’s Shakespearean flair for over-acting. All this is to say that it was the greatest pleasure of any version to watch, and allowed the viewer to forget that the characters were acting at all. It seemed natural. It seemed genuine. Of course, the fact that it is made for film, not for the stage or for TV, as many other versions have been, is part of what gives it its naturalness and immediacy, the two descriptors most attached to this version in reviews.

And now we come to what I consider the only failing of the film, though it is considerable. As the latest in a series of some 20 film renditions (Fukunaga said in an interview, “I believe this movie should be made every five years. So this was my turn”), it makes sense to compare this version against its predecessors. But for those coming to the film with no background on the story, and nothing to compare it to, the film editing could be confusing. While avoiding slavish devotion to the book’s plots and subplots (the epic mini-series renditions come to mind), this version still seems to want to address every detail. Helen’s death scene is duly observed. Jane’s return to her aunt’s house is kept intact. Jane’s little cottage near Moor House is established. Yet while touching on all these points, the movie also skims alarmingly over key points that I’d think are integral to understanding the premise. While many of these points can be inferred, this could be tiring or even impossible for someone entirely new to the plot.

For example, the following are never explained:
How Jane came to work at Thornfield
Rochester’s relationship to Adele
Why Rochester flirted with Blanche, or how he ended that pseudo-relationship
How Mason came to hear of Rochester’s bigamous marriage attempt
Bertha’s mental illness
The circumstances of Rochester’s marriage to Bertha, or the reason he cannot divorce her

In addition, we never learn that St. John and Jane are cousins, and we do not know that St. John plans to be a missionary to India until the sentence before he asks Jane to accompany him as his wife.

Diversions from other films, and certainly from the book, are to be expected and often welcomed—but not at the expense of the viewer understanding what is going on. Missing or adapted scenes in this version may be most disconcerting, however, to those who, like me, read Moira Buffini’s screenplay beforehand (it comes as a fabulous tag-on to the movie-tie-in edition e-book). Her work was already a drastic—if innovate and highly effective—turning of the book on its head. By inverting the order of events—opening the film with Jane fleeing Thornfield and working in flashback, rather than following the strictly chronological order of the book—the screenplay injects the plot with a new level of mystery and almost continuous action and variety. But Fukunaga’s final cuts leave us with something entirely separate from Buffini’s original work. Perhaps most illustrative of this—and most notable—is a set of scenes dealing directly with the film’s rating. It earned a PG-13 rating for “thematic elements including a nude image,” etc. This nude image, oft-discussed in fan forums (“I hope it’s Rochester!! <3”), was in scene 67 of Buffini’s screenplay, and was a nightmarish mirror reflection of Jane herself. It comes before Jane saves Rochester from being burned in his bed, and after an invented scene in which Rochester catches Jane studying a framed sketch of a reclining nude. Fukunaga has deleted the scene with a naked Jane but kept two scenes highlighting the hallway artwork. Without this background, the film’s fascination with the art piece seems strange and open-ended—and those of us who expected a follow-through scene were left puzzled.  

I may, after all, be wrong. I may be too close to the story to see a newcomer’s view of the film. While I compare the film to a dozen earlier versions, the book, the screenplay, and even the musical, someone new to the plot is left simply to enjoy and understand it for what it is—and what it is is a beautifully filmed, powerfully acted story. Do we really need to know that Jane and St. John are cousins? Not really. Fukunaga speaks directly to these issues and nicely answers these questions in an interview with Speakeasy. With a few days between me and the screening, I find myself agreeing with him. Days later I’m still over-analyzing, but when I step back and look at what was there, rather than focusing on what was not there, I can still see that this is the best version yet in its own right, independent of any other interpretation.

So what do you think? How does the new Jane Eyre compare to other versions? Does it matter to you? 

*Check out this post for another Eyre-ophiles comparison of the many film versions.


  1. It's gonna be the best version ever.

  2. What a thoughtful review.
    Thanks for taking the time to write all this down.

  3. Thanks, Amy! I'm glad you enjoyed reading.

  4. Very well written review. Thank you so much.


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