Fim Review – Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre is one of the most often filmed books in English literature. This Gothic tale of a girl’s upbringing and inner strength is a classic. While most famously filmed before by Robert Stevenson with stars Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, there is a new version just being released.
This latest retelling by director Cary Fukunaga stars Mia Wasikowska. The film opens with Jane desperately running through the desolate English countryside, searching for solace from an unknown danger. Then the film flashes back to her childhood, efficiently laying out her upbringing by an uncaring aunt while surrounded by relatives and servants who show her little compassion. When her wretched male cousin hits her, instead of accepting the abuse like most females were meant to at that time, Jane fights back hard. Subsequently, Jane’s aunt ships her off to boarding school to learn her place, where she is introduced to a world where girls are whipped for forgetting their place. Simply for making a scene, Jane is forced to stand on a chair amongst her schoolmates so she can be formally ostracized. Growing up in this world she finds only one friend in the world, who develops an ailment and leaves the young protagonist alone again.
All of these events lead Jane to graduating school to become a governess for the mysterious and abrupt Edward Fairfax Rochester, played rakishly by Michael Fassbender. She joins his household to care for his young French “ward” whose mother has died (it is implied that Rochester “knew” the girl’s mother while travelling in France). During her time there, our heroine becomes taken with the brooding lord of the household, and he with her as well. But there are ominous noises at night about the manor and Rochester is harboring a dark secret. If you are unfamiliar with the story, I will save the rest for your discovery.
Anchoring the film with her performance, Mia Wasikowska is terrific here as the title character. Her Jane is thoughtful, strong, defiant, and courageous. Her reactions to everyone around her are controlled, but you can see in her eyes the thought and emotion at play. In an early conversation with Rochester, she knows she must keep to her station, yet it is her willingness to speak up for herself that first attracts him. When he refers to her as plain looking and asks in return if he is attractive, she looks him straight in the eye and says “No sir,” then goes on to explain how his demeanor taints his looks. Behavior like this was unheard of in polite English society from a girl, and especially from one of lower caste. But it is this very directness that catches Rochester’s attention.
Dame Judi Dench is winning in the supporting role of the properly helpful Mrs. Fairfax. It is through her character that we learn much about the head of the manor. Speculation about his motivations are given to Jane as gossip, which lends to the Upstairs/Downstairs plotting. When Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane of the master’s preparations for travelling abroad for another year to be away from the household, you can see her young heart breaking. Late in the film Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliott fame) ably portrays a kindly parson who ends up making assumptions about our heroine that almost limit Jane’s fate as well.
Echoes of this story can be found in other famous tales. Joan Fontaine played a similar role in Rebecca a couple of years before playing Jane Eyre in the 1943 version. The “don’t go in the west wing” feel of Beauty and the Beast seems to have its origin in this story as well.
Previously Fukunaga had directed Sin Nombre, a much heralded film about gang members in Honduras. While famous English literature would seem to be a great departure from the rough streets of his previous film, he has created one of the best adaptations of this story yet. The production design feels lived-in and realistic. Gothic tales of this kind tend towards high melodrama, so it’s welcome that the film is subdued and subtle in presenting this somber story. Jane and Rochester love big, they feel big, but the film makes us believe them. It’s not sappy, just right. Highly recommended.