Jane Eyre is a strange book. Strange, in that it combines three elements which are normally found in separate books: a romance, a Gothic horror tale, and social commentary about the rights of women. Strange, in that it starts as an orphan tale, and ends as a rags-to-riches tale.
Though I read the book some eleven odd years ago (along with Jean Rhys’s response to it in Wild Sargasso Sea), I have not seen any of the films versions which have been based on this great work of literature. That way, I came to the free sneak preview (held on Thursday of last week) without being prejudiced by this portrayal of Mr. Rochester or that portrayal of Ms. Eyre. Unfortunately, two teenage girls also came to the movie and WOULD NOT SHUT UP. When the film ended, I wanted to lock them up in an attic. Their constant disrespectful banter broke up the reverie of the moment, and has made it difficult for me to write a proper review of the film. But I shall try.
[NOTE: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK, SPOILERS FOLLOW]
One detail that immediately separates the book from the film is that the movie starts halfway in, with Jane leaving Thornfield Hall (though we don’t know from where she is leaving until much later on). Traveling on the moors all day, she collapses on the doorstep of the Rivers family, and is carried inside by St. John Rivers. There, through flashbacks, we learn of her cruelty at the hands of her nephew and her aunt, the cruelty she endures at Lowood School, and finally her time spent at Thornfield Hall as a governess. In the book, everything is told in sequential order.
Though many of the episodes in the book are given short shrift here (though enough is shown for the viewer to sense how much cruelty Jane has to put up with), Jane’s time at Thornfield Hall covers most of the happenings in that same section in the book. The director, Cary Funagawa, said he wanted to treat more of the Gothic “creepiness” in the book, and he does so marvelously. Much credit can be given to his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, who gives us darkness and shadows in the interior shots, and sunlight and barrenness in the exterior shots. Inside, everything is either midrange or closeups, while outside, these shots are mixed with wide shots, meant to show the barrenness of the moors, or the beautiful rolling green hills of the English countryside. The colors are sumptuous, even when drab in color (kudos to the set and costume designers). One issue I have, however, is the use of shaky-cam at the beginning of the film, showing Jane’s plight from Thornfield. I approve of handheld cameras being used, but not when they’re being shaken to death. If it was meant to show Jane’s state of mind, all it ended up accomplishing was making me wish for a steady cam shot which, thankfully, followed.
The master of Thornfield Hall is the mysterious Mr. Rochester (who Jane meets in a nice touch of Gothic creepiness-and yup, I jumped). In the movie, the barbs between him and Jane are as cutting as they are in the book (possibly even more so), and while one can see Rochester’s love for Jane increase, and Jane’s feelings for Rochester increase, I don’t know if I believed her reproach of him when she thinks he will marry Blanche Ingram, or her acceptance of him when he proposes to her, instead. Of course, that could have been the fault of those two demon teens behind me. But even if I am wrong about that scene, I did feel that the scene where St. John proposes marriage to Jane a bit harsh and strange. True, his proposal is in the book, but the book gives the proposal more time to build, and this extra time is necessary to see how his feelings for Jane could become more than a practicality (and give it less of a business-like air). The movie doesn’t offer the characters this space, and it glosses over her indecision to the proposal. It also doesn’t mention her family connection to the Rivers.
The ending, however, is very affecting. And with Sally Hawkins playing Mrs. Sarah Reed, Jane’s aunt (amazing how well she can do cruelty, considering how “happy-go-lucky” she’s been in her other roles), Michael Fassbender playing Mr. Rochester, and the incomparable Dame Judi Dench playing Mrs. Fairfax, the cast is well-equipped to retell this classic tale. Jamie Bell is also good as St. John Rivers, up until his too-forceful marriage proposal to Jane.
But what about the actress who plays Jane Eyre? In truth, there are two actresses: Amelia Clarkson plays the young Jane, while Mia Wasikowska plays the older one. Both play the role as defiantly as they can, which is in character for someone with Jane’s fighting spirit. I only wished for more passion, more anguish, in the proposal scene with Rochester. True, Jane is not an emotional girl, but I feel that, in that scene, her passion should overwhelm her. Having no other actress to compare her to, I can only say that she plays the role with grace and intelligence (and while she looks young for the part, it is to be remembered that Jane is 18 in the book), but I feel she does not inhabit the character as well as Fassbender inhabits his, or Dench or Hawkins (even) inhabit theirs. But, then again, I had two constant distractions behind me.
Another thing I noticed in the film were the accents. Jane speaks with a little bit of a cockney accent (Mrs. Fairfax does, too), while Mr. Rochester has a slight Scottish lilt to his speech. Not being an expert in these matters, I could be wrong about the kinds of accents used, but it further separates, into classes, Jane from the help, and Jane from Rochester.
I have a fondness for period dramas, but I can neither recommend nor condem this film until I have seen it again, owing to the distractions behind me. One wishes that I had sat near the critic of The Seattle Times while watching the movie. I’m sure the people sitting near her were silent.
(Note: After seeing the film, I found this version of the proposal scene on Youtube. It confirmed my suspicions: passion makes the scene play better).
(And part of the same speech from the new film, where I felt some of the lines were recited as if this were a high school play.)