Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jane Eyre (2011)


Let me start out by confessing that I may not be impartial enough to judge this movie fairly.  I have read and re-read Jane Eyre numerous times, and loyalty to the source material can lead to unreasonable expectations (and rigidly inflexible demands) for film adaptations.  It may be that no movie version would ever satisfy me, for the simple reason that no movie version can ever measure up to the original.

That being said, I think that it has to be possible to do better than this. 

Let's talk about Jane.
I know that Jane is supposed to be plain, unremarkable, and rather dull (to the casual observer, at any rate).  But we, the audience, are not supposed to agree with her peers.  Once we are granted a glimpse of her spirit, we see that beneath her calm exterior she is full of life and emotion and thought.  We care about her.  Or at least I do.  Or did, when I read the book.  But the Jane on screen here never lets the audience see her fire, her zest, her spirit.  She seems to us as lifeless and uninteresting as she was to those around her.  She completely buries her passion and personality, with one notable exception--her blistering evisceration of Rochester upon learning that he is engaged to marry Miss Ingram (which was admittedly well done).  However, prior to this burst of emotion, the audience is given many reasons to pity her, but no reason to love her.  I found myself wondering what in the world Rochester saw in her--she seemed dull as toast.  It is, of course, a challenge to portray a character who is so supremely uninteresting to others and yet has hidden spirit--especially since Jane (like a good English woman) is careful to preserve such a placid front.  The novel is able to describe her appearance (how others see her) while allowing the reader access to her innermost thoughts (who she really is).  Thus, the reader discovers that Jane really is worth knowing, and it comes as no surprise that Rochester finds her intriguing.  A film cannot rely on this device without excessive and annoying over-reliance on voiceovers, but must instead communicate the character of its heroine through images and spoken words.  I don't deny that it's a challenge, but if you can't do it, you'll never be able to make a convincing adaptation of Jane Eyre, and you'd be better off sticking to more plot-driven works.

While I applaud the filmmakers' determination to avoid the "Jane Eyre is a hottie" pitfall, Mia Wasikowska is all too believable as the dullsville Jane.  Sadly, absent sufficient development of her relationship with Rochester, their supposed attraction to one another rang hollow.  Both actors portrayed the emotions of love competently enough, but the utter lack of chemistry and failure to establish any kind of meaningful connection between Jane and Rochester created an unsettling sensation that they were projecting their supposed passion past one another.  It never seemed to connect.

Fassbender played Rochester as temperamental and passionate, but his portrayal lacked the power and darkness that defines Rochester.  Rochester, in the novel, is moody, yes--but not petulent.  He is prone to periods of blackness and temper that, when backed by his physical strength and mental fortitude, make him quite scary.  Ultimately, this Rochester seemed rather watered-down, a bit milquetoast in comparison to the real deal. 

Even Dame Judi Dench seemed out of place--Mrs. Fairfax is a rather muddy, undefined sort of character, miles apart from Dench's usual no-nonsense, tough as nails, incisive characters.  (Though perhaps the fact that I adore her as "M" in the Bond movies is tainting my perspective.)  She has a certain persona, and her character is not onscreen long enough to sell a believable departure from that persona. 

Some reviews have lambasted the narrative structure of the adaptation--the decision to start from Jane's fateful flight over the moor and tell the rest of the story by way of flashbacks.  I was, for the most part, untroubled by this choice.  More unsettling, to me, was the abrupt treatment of the flashbacks.  Each scene felt like a brief nod to readers--I am not at all certain that someone unfamiliar with the story would be able to piece together the story.  The three short scenes of Jane's life in the Reed household are well done, and fraught with emotional impact.  However, Jane's time at the Lowood School is glossed over, and her friendship with Helen Burns is poorly established.  Once Jane arrives at Thornfield, her ineractions with Rochester are so limited, that the love she supposedly feels for him comes as something of a shock.  Everything is presented to the audience as a fait accompli--we are told that Lowood School is terrible, told that Jane and Helen were close friends, told that she loves Rochester, told that he loves her.  We never get to see it happen.  We are never shown.

Again, I realize it is difficult to adapt a longish novel into a 2 hour film.  However, with so much inner monologue, the book is not exactly chock full of events.  If the Harry Potter tomes can be adapted, it does not seem unreasonable that a film adaptation of Jane Eyre would be able to touch on all the salient points of the story.  I have not seen the other adaptations (the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version (1944) and the Charlotte Gainsbourg/William Hurt version (1996) are the most frequently referenced), but I look forward to seeing whether they are able to communicate the story without such a clipped, choppy, unsupported feel. 

One last note:  This adaptation was billed as having more of a Gothic, horror focus.  Indeed, the trailer is fraught with menace, shadows, and violins.  Which would have been a great idea, if the movie had followed through on the expectations established in the trailer.  After all, the book is full of dark and mysterious circumstance, and Jane is sensitive enough to be profoundly affected by the eerie events that surround her.  Sadly, this elevated sense of fear and danger is utterly absent from the film itself.  If Jane is scared, she does a jolly good job of hiding it from the audience.  She moves through the house with stolid placidity, completely untroubled by the nighttime wanderers, strange sounds, and inexplicable violence that plague Thornfield.  The big reveal is thus robbed of almost all emotional impact, as it solves a mystery the heroine seems not to have noticed.  If the movie had been what the trailer advertised--full of suspense and terror and anxiety--it would have been much more interesting. 

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