Jane Eyre,
directed by Cary Fukunaga
(Focus, 2011)

While watching director Cary Fukunaga's film version of Charlotte Bronte's Gothic romance Jane Eyre, I thought to myself, "This must be what it felt like to watch movies before the Internet started spoiling all of the juicy parts. This must be what it feels like to be surprised by a film!"

My own jaded familiarity with the story and its overabundance of directorial stabs at filmic renditions have caused me to be genuinely shocked by ... well, by the audience's genuine shock when this classic story's secrets are laid bare.

How refreshing to hear gasps and to see gaping mouths in the presence of the novel's 12th adaptation. It puts to rest any question as to whether or not Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini did Bronte justice, especially since this particular story seems on the brink of cliche these days. A young governess (played in this film by Mia Wasikowska) falls in love with her older, surly employer named Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbinder plays him with a balance of sarcasm, gruffness and tenderness upon which all future Rochesters will be judged -- yes, there undoubtedly will be future versions), but their love for one another is haunted by a secret that in the 1800s was considered socially, morally and religiously fatal.

Let's face it, the babysitter falling for the man of the house isn't exactly unheard of. This film's backwards-working plot and exceptionally stylized cinematography saves the story from going stale. Wide-angled, sweeping shots of a destitute Jane wandering the bucolic English moors commence the film, and we are told her life story and love affair through cunning flashbacks. Working backwards accounts for the extra-shocked audience as it adds mystery to the tale.

Fukunaga and editor Melanie Oliver deftly juxtapose the images of Jane's recounting of her childhood to simultaneously create some dark comedy and commentary on the time period -- when Jane is asked if the school she attended provided a thorough education, there is a flashback of a staff striking a little girl's back and she glibly responds, "Most thorough."

Passion isn't lacking in this production's efforts. The scenes depicting Jane and Mr. Rochester's romance are gorgeously set up: they meet with gnarled black trees and swirling mist framing their bodies, and the romance continues amongst symmetrically positioned Victorian furniture and outdoor frolics framed by flowered vines and cherry blossom branches bordering the scenes. Even Buffini's script captures some of Bronte's original fiery writing concerning her frustration -- nay, anger -- at her inferior position as a woman (something rare to find in any adaptation of the novel).

The only thing lacking in passion is the couple itself. Chemistry is a fickle thing; either it's there or it's not. Fassbender and Wasikowska, although they give admirable performances, lack heat between them -- even in a scene with a bedroom on fire they're about as urgent and passionate as Sunday morning churchgoers. Ultimately, since it is their dark, doomed romance that carries the film, it's imperative that Fassbender and Wasikowska's scenes work. But, in most cases, their pacing and timing are unsynchronized giving us the feeling that they are talking at each other instead of to one another; the scene when they first meet is a perfect example -- beautiful for the eyes but not so much for the ears.

So while only a singular aspect of Jane Eyre is lackluster, most moviegoers will find that it makes all the difference. If you want a thrill, watch it with someone who doesn't know the story, and then sit back and let the rollercoaster of reactions begin.

review by
Molly Ebert

2 July 2011

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