Film review: Jane Eyre (2011), directed by Cary Fukanaga
Jane Eyre (2011) begins with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) running away from Thornfield Hall. She collapses, bedraggled and barely conscious, on the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), a parson preparing to leave on a mission to India. A series of flashbacks tells her tale of woe: as a child she was tormented by her cousin and aunt, she was sent to a school where pupils were beaten and humiliated, she makes a friend who believes deeply in God, and she is employed as a governess at Thornfield. The estate is presented as a gloomy, forbidding place, and its owner, the world-weary Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender), is equally dark. Adele Varens (Rochester’s ward and Jane’s pupil, played to perfection by Romy Settbon Moore) claims that there is a woman who walks around at night, is able to move through walls, and wants to suck blood (to which Jane replies “nonsense”).
Fassbender as Rochester is glowering, passionate and immoral. Wasikowska as Jane is brooding, passionate and moral. They both do a marvelous job expressing what the screenplay gives them to work with. Jane rescues Rochester from his mysteriously burning bed, establishing them as a potentially intimate couple. When Jane returns to her room afterwards, she leans against the door and smiles to herself. Similarly, after Rochester puts a flower in her hair, she escapes back to the house, but then pauses to ponder him in her heart. Very subtle. Perhaps a little too subtle. Bell is not a “Greek god” by any stretch of the imagination, but he gives a convincing and scaring portrayal of Rivers as the cold, controlling opposite of Rochester.
The lighting, scenery, grounds and costumes are all exquisite. Many of the recurring themes are used effectively: the horizon, the concept of soul mates, being struck speechless. For example, Jane asks Mrs. Fairfax (the ever amazing Judi Dench) why women can’t have action in their lives, and complains that her life stops at the horizon. After Rochester arrives at Thornfield, the windows are open, and the curtains move in the wind, flowing around Jane with animation and life. In contrast, after St. John proposes to her, she stands in front of a window, it is shut, and the curtains are opaque and immobile.
However, there are too many discrepancies between dialogue and action throughout the film. Stating in one scene “you and I are equals,” asserting in another “you transfix me quite” and then later saying “we are connected by a string under the ribs” is not very effective if there are no flirting glances, no pet names, no significant connection in between. When they first get to know each other, Rochester asks Jane if she ever laughs (she could ask the same of him); it would have been SO satisfying and romantic to see their relationship develop in this direction. Unfortunately, there is not one “provoking puppet” or even “little elf” to support Rochester’s claim that his attraction to Jane is due to her “other-worldly” qualities.
The other undeveloped relationship is that between Rochester and Blanche Ingram. Their mutual attraction is reported by Mrs. Fairfax, but it is barely shown on screen. Likewise, Rochester is never given the opportunity to be contemptuous of Miss Ingram. He tells Jane during his proposal that “Miss Ingram is the machine,” but seeing would have been believing. She played the piano and sang beautifully and sneered at Jane a few times, hardly the actions of a Gothic gold-digger on auto-pilot. A line of Mrs. Fairfax’s captures these discrepancies the morning after the engagement, “I have noticed that you are his pet, but men like him are not accustomed to marry their governesses.” Oh, if this had been mirrored in the action: the verbal jousting, his toying with her affection, the unworthy one digging her claws in!
I was disappointed that the atmosphere of horror is missing in so many scenes, when it is captured so precisely in others. Before Jane meets Rochester in a dark country lane, a grouse flies up in front of her, and the whole audience gasped in surprise. Then a horse suddenly appears, screams, and falls on top of its rider, who recovers and warns Jane to hurry on her errand, because “you never know what might be lurking.” Back at Thornfield, the lurking vampire is hinted at many times: eerie noises, the unexplained fire, muffled screams in the night, a bloodied visitor, but, most strangely, the rending of Jane’s bridal veil is omitted. I found the reappearance of a terrified Mason more surprising than the revelation of the wife in the attic.
This film has such potential. There were many threads that director Cary Fukanaga attempted to weave into a tableau. I do not believe that he succeeded. The threads were not woven together tightly enough in the middle, with a loose and disjointed result. Much of the fault lies with the screenplay: the story does not prove that Rochester and Jane are unconventional yet perfectly suited partners. In one of their best scenes together, Rochester weeps and clutches Jane to him, saying “You are like a reed … I could crush you between finger and thumb … but I could never have your soul, and that is what I want!” In response, Jane cries out that she has to be true to herself. This film is very moving, frequently shocking, but ultimately not entirely convincing, because we are not given more than a glimpse into Jane’s soul or sense of self.
4 out of 5 “what the deuces?!”