Film review: Jane Eyre (2011), directed by Cary Fukanaga
Jane Eyre finally hits UK screens today, only six months after it was first brought out on a limited release in North America. But let’s put that behind us and focus on the latest adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic.
Unlike any of its predecessors, this version of Jane Eyre starts in medias res, with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) running away from Thornfield Hall. There are gloomy moors, crying, equally crying violin music, and she finds herself at the mercy of the Rivers family. This is where the story starts to unfold itself. Where did she come from? Why was she running and from what?
Through a series of flashbacks, we soon find out. We see a bleak childhood as an orphan in the care of a stern aunt (Sally Hawkins) and cruel cousins. They can’t wait to send her off to a school for orphans, headed by the reverend Mr Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney), and be rid of her once and for all. Small, plain, passionate and utterly disagreeable Jane (Amelia Clarkson) isn’t even to come home to Gateshead for Christmas.
At Lowood School, which is not something dwelled upon for very long, we see Jane make friends with a slightly older girl, Helen Burns (Freya Parks). Helen gets bullied by one of the teachers, but she takes it in her stride, because her faith in the Almighty comforts her. What is the body but merely vessel for the spirit? Helen of course dies of typhus soon afterwards in the film’s narrative, because the conditions at the charity school are so poor. That they are that poor, we don’t really see or hear much about – the only clue is that the collars of the dresses the girls are wearing aren’t clean.
Eventually Jane becomes a teacher there, and eventually decides to go it alone. Jane ends up as a governess at Thornfield Hall, an old manor house in the country, occupied by old Mrs Fairfax (Judy Dench), the French girl who is to be Jane’s pupil – Adéle (Romy Settbon Moore), and some servants. Notably, because of the times portrayed, the coachman black. Is this the first ever person of colour in a Jane Eyre adaptation?
Jane starts teaching the girl, but being cooped up in the middle of nowhere with no intellectual equal to talk to gets a bit dull after a while. How lucky Jane should happen to come across her employer when out for a walk. Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). He’s bitter and he’s cranky, but he takes an interest in the house’s new inmate. She’s not much to look at, but she’s intelligent and someone he can have a conversation with.
We find out that Jane and Mr Rochester start to fall in love with one another, that they are to be married … and then we finally find out why Jane runs away from Thornfield in tears …
On the off-chance that anyone reading this actually isn’t familiar with the story, I’ll leave it at that.
This has got to be the first adaptation to make the audience jump. At least twice. The scene in the Red Room at Gateshead, with the ominous fireplace I found genuinely scary and that made me jump. The second time, a fluttering bird, definitely had the whole audience jump. I’m amused. Speaking of which, the script does call for some humorous moments. Most of them seem to involve Mrs Fairfax, but luckily they don’t make her out to be some doddering old fool.
Which brings me on to performances. There’s a reason Dame Judi Dench is such a well-loved actress – she’s absolutely fantastic. She brings a kindness and even motherliness to Mrs Fairfax that is not often seen. She genuinely cares about Jane, and when she gives her word of warning to Jane (you know the one I mean, Dear Reader), it does come across as motherly concern for a young girl, as opposed to “you think yourself above your station, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into”, which is how that scene normally pans out. I like it.
I also like – and have reservations about – Jane’s hands-on approach teaching Adéle. It’s kind and loving, giving the girl all the love and attention Jane never got herself, but at the same time it feels out of place. She’s not the girl’s doting mother, she’s a salaried governess in the 1830s – they weren’t really known for being cuddly. Not even Jane Eyre.
Jane herself looked the part, I thought. Unlike most of her predecessors, Wasikowska actually looks like she could be 18. I don’t believe Fassbender to be 38 … but at the same time, Rochester is supposed to look slightly younger, say 35, so maybe it’s not so bad after all. He looks nothing like the Vulcan the book describes, of course – blue eyes and that light brown hair? Rochester’s supposed to be dark, both of hair and of eyes. But never mind. He plays the part well, and for that I applaud him. Tricky character to get right, apparently.
For Thornfield Hall, the film-makers have once again opted for Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. It’s such a beautiful place, and the thing is, it looks exactly like you’d expect Thornfield to look, so seeing it on screen really gives a feeling of … I don’t know, realism? Haddon Hall looks the part, and plays as big a part as any character. More than some, in fact.
To tell the story in flashbacks I think works. It brings new life to the story, which otherwise can feel a bit tedious until we finally get to Thornfield, not to mention the wet blanket that is the Morton part. By telling it this way, we get an adequate amount of Gateshead, too little Lowood (seriously, the place shaped Jane into what she is, Helen had a huge part in that, and all we get is this?), and the tedium of Moor House is split up with things we actually care about, i.e. the bits with Rochester in. It comes full circle, of course, so we again see Jane crying on the moors with the DRAMATICALLY SAD VIOLIN MUSIC (it has to be capitalised, that bloody violin was doing my head in – every scene even remotely emotional had it in, loudly, and I don’t like loud, high-pitched noises).
The three Rivers siblings (Jamie Bell, Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant) are, okay this is a spoiler but what the hell, not Jane’s cousins here. They’re just some random strangers who happen to take her in. This is because a modern audience would think it too implausible that they should happen to be related. Okay, yes, that they’re related is a massive, stinking Plot Device in the novel, but without it … no, I need to have a separate rant about that. Even Mr T picked up on it, and I can’t even get him to finish the graphic novel. Let’s just say he’s not well-versed in 1800s literature, and if even he can pick up on it, it’s a biggie.
The ending is another thing he picked up on. He said, “That was a bit short, wasn’t it? I thought there was more. This feels like a Hollywood ending. Don’t they have some kind of final talk and she has to persuade him or something like that?” (His apparent knowledge of a story he says he has no knowledge of at all surprised me.) I said that yes, yes they do, and it was cut out in favour of an ending which seems to have been borrowed from the Orson Welles 1940s version. It’s abrupt, to say the least. And that they leave off the final verbal sparring between the two characters actually creates a big problem – it changes the whole point of the original story. Which I’ll rant about in another post.
In fact, after seeing the film, I felt confused, if anything. Did I like it? Did I not like it? When people asked me if I liked it, I said “it was okay” and they looked at me funny, as if “it’s ‘okay’? That’s all you have to say? Really? With that t-shirt?” Also, my bum was incredibly sore and had been for about half the film, making it difficult to concentrate. (“Comfortable seating”? My arse. Heh.) But it’s true. When writing this, I still don’t know what to make of it, which is why I’m going to see the film again in about 1½ hours. Then, hopefully, I will have made my mind up one way or the other. And then I’ll finish writing this post.
And I’m back!
The seats were a lot more comfortable this time, and we were at most maybe a dozen people in the audience – more than I expected at an 11:25 showing. This audience reacted the same way the one at Haddon Hall did. Laughed at the same places, jumped at the same … This time, though, I noticed the whining violins less. Overall, I’m positive. I enjoyed the film. It has some issues, certainly, but overall it’s good.
Jane (both of them) does indeed look too stone-faced for the most part. I missed the fire between her and Rochester, and she was far too meek. She looks the part, beautifully so, but the only time there’s a bit of bite in her is in the proposal scene. Disappointed. When the younger version gets hit with a book, it’s brutal and it really looks as if she got her head banged for real – the audience winced en masse.
Fassbender does a pretty good Rochester, though, but the wedding scene is still lacking. There’s just “proceed!” and then he tries to throttle Mason. No, it needs more. This Rochester smokes a cigar, and while I’m vehemently against smoking, it’s a good detail. After all, that’s what Jane can smell in the garden, just before the proposal scene in the novel. Sure, Fassbender doesn’t look like Rochester, and those sideburns are hilarious, but he’s not even built like him. Fassbender is far too tall and lanky. Also, WTF was up with the master of the house digging up a stub of a bush? Isn’t that the sort of thing he pays a gardener to do?
The gorgeous but cold man with a Grecian profile isn’t very cold, and he’s not very handsome either – sorry, Jamie Bell! I don’t mean to say that the actor is ugly, but St John suffers the same problem as Robert Pattinson playing Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Both actors are decent-looking, but their characters are supposed to be total hunks according to their respective novels, and neither of them are. St John is also way too passionate – he’s always struck me as dispassionate. Yes, he loves Rosamund Oliver (no such woman here, btw), but he’s not exactly reciting love poems, is he?
Harry Lloyd (BBC’s Robin Hood, Game of Thrones) as Richard Mason … Mr T said that he never spoke, but having re-watched the film, I can confirm that no, the man does have a few lines. Not many, though, but he does speak. Grace Poole we glimpse in the kitchen at one point (just because I was looking out for her this time, as I thought “was she even in it at all?”) and then briefly as they’re storming past her. The adult Reed children are just shown briefly in the background as Jane walks past. Oh well, at least Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots) is a brunette, the little we get to see of her.
The lace work and embroidery were spectacular in many cases – especially liked young Jane’s cap and Mrs Fairfax’s apron (the one with the flowers). And I normally don’t even look at things like that. My mum might, as that’s related to her profession, so that even I notice it and appreciate it has got to count for something, right?
The nature shots are beautiful. Was concerned for Jane, seeing as how she was out on the moors in thundery weather – you know, it’s a wide, open space and a person is the tallest thing for miles … Jane, m’dear, you’re a walking lightning rod.
Anyway, I digress, as usual.
Some odd decisions about what to leave out of the story (Adéle’s dubious parentage for one), but overall, it’s a treat to watch. The cinematography is wonderful, good use of natural light, or at least natural-looking light. While it’s not the adaptation to end all adaptations, Jane Eyre ’11 can hold its head high for at least having given it a good shot. It’s not perfect, but I’d rather re-watch this one than I would York/Scott, Gainsbourg/Hurt or Morton/Hinds.
4 out of 5 lonely violins.