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Jane Eyre (2011)

March 23, 2011

written by: Moira Buffini (based on the Charlotte Brontë novel)
produced by: Alison Owen & Paul Trijbits
directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
rated PG-13 (for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content)
115 min
U.S. release date: March 18, 2011 (limited)
There is a dizzying amount of film and television adaptations out there based on Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel Jane Eyre, dating back to the silent era of film. Versions have been made by various countries, operas and plays have been created, and even a zombie flick based on the classic Gothic work. Having never read the book or seen any previous versions (that’s right, somehow I’ve been able to make my way through life), I consider myself among the minority that is fortunate to approach the material with no expectations. After watching the latest incarnation by director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) though, I am now interested and intrigued by the world of Jane Eyre. That is the first of many compliments I will bestow on this impressive and impassioned film.  
It takes all but ten minutes to see that this young woman is a passionate and independent spirit in a world where such a disposition is quickly squashed by society. Girls do what they are told or what’s expected of them and nothing more or less in the 19th century. Not Jane. With her indomitable will and righteous indignation, even as a child (Amelia Clarkson) Jane is bucking the system. Yet, despite her strong exterior, she still longs for the acceptance and love that anyone else does. But unlike many women of her time, Jane (played splendidly at nineteen by Mia Wasikowska) won’t settle for less, especially when it comes to love. So, right away this is worlds apart from the typical period piece where the tightened corsets and flowing bodices confine any real personality or true feelings.
Like the book (yes, I started it) the film is told from the perspective of the main character and Fukunaga uses deliberate techniques to accentuate the inner workings of Jane Eyre. He starts us out with an emotionally worked-up Jane, out in the open and exposed to the cold rain. We’re not sure why she’s there, where she is coming from or if she is trying to find someone. She  manages to stumble upon a home inhabited by three sisters and their brother, St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), a pious young man. They take her in, providing shelter and warmth, while Fukunaga provides the audience with a flashback (the first of many) that tells us how she got there.
We learn that as a young girl Jane’s independent nature was seen as insolence and in turn she was repeatedly punished and cut off from any kind of love. Her adoptive mother, Ms. Reed (Sally Hawkins) detested Jane and her school’s cruel headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) would ostracize her from all her peers. The only friend she had at Lowood, the boarding school for malnourished girls was a classmate, Helen Burns (Freya Parks), who died while lying next to Jane. Establishing these moments as important touchstones, Fukunaga glosses over details that the book and other adaptations have undoubtedly covered, but however vague, his inclusion of these scenes serves in flashback serve a purpose in forming the character of Jane Eyre. 
It’s ironic that despite being exposed to such loss and despair that Jane grows into a young woman with such fortitude. She even winds up teaching at Lowood before leaving the school and accepting a position at Thornfield Hall as a governess. The master of the estate travels often, leaving the care of the grounds and those living there to Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), who provides Jane with the lowdown on the dank and seemingly haunted grounds. Jane is told her primary responsibility is to educate and care for Adele Varens (Romy Settbon Moore) a young French girl who may have ties to her employer.
On her way to post some letters, Jane startles a horse whose rider is thrown to the cold ground of the dense forest surrounding Thornfield.. He calls Jane a witch and she later learns he is Edward Rochester, her employer and master of Thornfield. Blind to her youth, he takes an interest in her. This is due to her self-protective aura and her outspoken demeanor, which are likely rare qualities in any women the rakish Rochester (Michael Fassbender) has previously encountered. He consistently asks for Jane’s company and amid many a fireside chat he gets her to talk openly, inquiring about her past and asking her opinions on various topics. Such conversation is equally foreign to Jane and as much as the two gravitate to each other, she also notices him entertaining the company of Blanche Ingram (Imogene Poots) a lovely local girl, who is prone to incessant laughing and blushing.
Regardless of the odds, the gravitational pull that draws Jane and Rochester together is undeniable and (refreshingly) natural.  Neither of them seem to know what to do with each other, but their compatibility is inarguable. Unfortunately, a spectre from Rochester’s past with possibly ties to the phantom that haunts Thornfield intervenes which forces an emotionally torn Jane to resort to her survivalist instincts.
The story is a truly penetrating one that is superbly carried by two fascinating actors. Wasikowska and Fassbender know how to reveal little while allowing the audience to examine their characters, not necessarily by words but by body language and mannerisms. As Jane, Wasikowska embodies an observant, defiant, and modest young woman who internalizes desire and a carnal curiosity in subtle ways. Never once does she consider herself as lower-class or resort to sacrificing who she is, and it becomes obvious why this iconic character has become such an important woman in literature. It’s the best performance yet from Wasikowska (who had a great 2010 with “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Kids Are All Right”) who is embarking on a career that should be closely monitored. To play the role of Rochester requires more than just a handsome face. There’s far more to this character and Fassbender (so excellent in 2008’s ” Hunger”, soon to be a household name) knows it. He brings an abrasive charisma as well as a blunt harshness, that when combined with a genuine concern and interest in Jane, serves as somewhat of an enigma.
Both actors tackle Brontë’s language in a believable way and screenwriter Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe”) does well to tone down any typical romantic novel beats. Undeniably, there are supporting characters here could have been developed more. I could tell that there would be more story and character development in the book and in other adaptations but at no point was I confused nor did it restrict me from enjoying the film.
Oscar-winning Italian composer Dario Marianelli (“Atonement”) holds off on any emotionally swelling orchestrations and instead focuses on lilting strings and relying on intricate harp and piano solos that inject appropriate ambience. As a result, we get characters that seem real and can be taken seriously, not brushed with broad strokes. Watching Wasikowska and Fassbender go back and forth is mesmerizing, especially during their fireside chat where Rochester is increasingly intrigued how Jane can hold her own with his probing questions. It’s a welcome rarity to have two leads who are equally intriguing to watch on-screen.
The trailer for “Jane Eyre” clearly went for a new take by heightening the Gothic presence of the story, almost marketing the film like a thriller. That’s understandable considering there’s a good deal of suspense and some disturbing scenes to go along with the humor and romance. What sets this apart from other films based on similar classics, is a lack of a bright color palette, annoying over-acting, and a sweeping score. None of that was missed. Fukunaga employs Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman (“Sin Nombre”) who shrouds the film in earth tones and successfully allows the contrasting shadows and lights to coincide with the mystery and unspoken emotions of the story. He also relies less on scanning lush locales and moreso on handheld shots that immerse viewers into the moment, traveling with Jane as she manuevers her way through her self-protective journey.
Anyone ignoring this film thinking they’ll be subjected to yet another costumed period piece filled with unrequited love, should think again. There is a reason this timeless story continues to be remade. It’s easy to see its importance as an uncompromising young woman who speaks from her heart. Worth revisiting even if you feel you’ve seen every angle of the book covered before and especially worthy of a first-time visit, this “Jane Eyre” is as relevant and enduring as its source.
 RATING: ***1/2
10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2011 4:48 pm

    I just finished the book, which was fantastic, and can’t wait to see this version of the movie.

  2. Sandy permalink
    March 23, 2011 4:55 pm

    Well, good on you for starting to read it! By the way, if you ever need another reviewer (who is a published writer & English prof) to review films based on literature…I’ve read them all (mostly).

  3. francesca permalink
    April 5, 2011 11:18 am

    Well, I love Jane Eyre, it’s one of my all time favourite books and I’ve probably read it 100 times – for me it’s one of the founding stones of modern romantic literature. I’ve seen a lot of adaptations, one that sticks in mind had Timothy Dalton perfectly cast as Mr Rochester; and despite the bad reviews I did really like the William Hurt version too…
    I’m really looking forward to seeing this to add to my collection 🙂


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