(2011) Mystery (Focus) Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Tamzin Merchant, Imogen Poots, Simon McBurney, Sophie Ward, Romy Settbon Moore, Harry Lloyd. Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Some stories withstand the test of time, striking a chord with readers over different eras with startling similarity. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” is like that; as a mash-up of Gothic castles, bleak windswept moors, barely restrained eroticism and a Victorian-era morality tale that is surprisingly subversive it has spoken to feminine sensibilities in ways we men cannot comprehend fully. Let’s put it this way – it’s no accident that the brooding angst-y vampire of the Twilight series is named Edward.
There have been 28 different screen versions of the tale, dating back to silent movies and including broad stroked television mini-series to a classic version with Orson Welles as Edward Rochester and Joan Fontaine as the titular heroine. The question then becomes why make a new version at all.
Director Fukunaga, whose Sin Nombre was an acclaimed hit a couple of years ago, wanted to emphasize the Gothic elements of the novel and thus he does, making this less of a Harlequin Romance as some versions have been and much more of a character study. He even chooses to tell the story non-sequentially (the novel was chronologically told), beginning with Jane (Wasikowska) fleeing across the moors only to collapse, exhausted and suffering from exposure, and the door of St. John Rivers (Bell), a kindly pastor with two bubbly sisters (Grainger, Merchant).
From there we see Jane’s story; the cruelty suffered as a child at the hands of her aunt (Hawkins) after her parents pass away, leaving her orphaned. The hardships suffered at a school for girls, particularly at the hands of a sadistic and cruel vicar (McBurney) who runs the establishment. The placing of Jane as a governess of a naïve French child (Moore) at Thornhill, a gloomy mansion on the moors of England, whose household is run by the gossip-mongering Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) and presided by its master, Edward Rochester (Fassbender) whose shadow pervades the castle even in his absence. There Jane, described as a plain and simple girl, falls in love with Rochester and he with her, but dark secrets in Rochester’s past threaten to destroy them both.
I haven’t read the novel in probably thirty years, but it stays with me still. Some guys pooh-pooh it as a “girl’s book” but it is much more than that. Many of the elements that inspire and drive girls into womanhood can be found there. While strong female characters such as Jane might dissuade some boys from paying attention to the book, there is a great deal of insight into the female psyche to be found there. Don’t understand women? Read “Jane Eyre.”
The performances here are solid if unspectacular. Wasikowska, who has shown herself to be a capable actress in such movies as Alice in Wonderland (also playing a strong Victorian heroine from literature) and The Kids Are All Right, has the movie resting squarely on her shoulders and she carries it with surprising strength. I thought her a bit too pretty to play plain Jane, but she manages to look the part with the severe hairstyle of the era and plain clothing.
Fassbender, one of the best actors who you’ve never heard of (see his performances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds if you don’t believe me), has a difficult role to fill in the enigmatic and brooding Edgar. The part has already had its ultimate portrayal by Welles, but to Fassbender’s credit he doesn’t try to mimic a previous performance and rather goes to accent elements of the character that haven’t been done often (to my knowledge anyway).
The art direction and the cinematography are two of the reasons to see this movie. It is well photographed, particularly the lonely vistas of the storm-swept moors. The interiors are well-appointed in the style of the period and you get a genuine idea of how the people of the time lived. The costumes are spot on, and when the action takes place at night, flickering candlelight appears to be the only illumination.
The movie does move slowly and modern audiences might have difficulty adjusting to the pace. Those who are used to the quick cut no-attention-span theater that is what most teens are used to will really have a lot of problems with losing focus during the movie. However, it is for certain worth checking out, if only for no other reason to acquaint yourself with one of the most brilliant novels of all time and to check out a story that resonates throughout history, influencing so much of literature all the way up to the “Twilight” series.
REASONS TO GO: Lushly photographed and well-acted. It is one of the most iconic novels of all-time and as close as many are ever going to get to reading it.
REASONS TO STAY: As befits a novel of that era, the pacing is majestic, sweeping and slightly overbearing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is the examination of a painting which depicts nudity and there’s also a very teensy bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Charlotte Bronte book was initially published in 1847 under the pen name “Currer Bell.”
HOME OR THEATER: While the bleak vistas of the moors look gorgeous on the big screen, the intimacy of the main story is well-received on the home screen.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
TOMORROW: Saint Ralph