Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jane Eyre (***)

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga


Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is considered to be amongst the greatest of the Gothic-Romantic novels of its time. When you read it, with its underlying sexual tension chastising the hypocritical nature of 1840's culture, you almost have to scoff at the faithless attempts that books like Twilight take to imitate it. It's a classic tale about a strong-minded, independent woman who comes from emotionally abusive childhood, that Hollywood has been trying to fully recreate on film for many years. There have been several versions made on both films and television but this latest film version is an excellent visualization of Bronte's brooding tale.

After years of hurdling between several young actresses to play the iconic Jane Eyre, the filmmakers decided to choose budding Australian movie star Mia Wasikowska. Wasikowska (only 21 years old) has shown an ability to embrace a wisdom far beyond her years in films like last year's The Kids Are All Right and That Evening Sun (we'll forgive her headlining participation in Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, because I'd imagine that it's nearly impossible for someone her age to turn down that kind of role). This is an ability that is instrumental is trying to play a character like Jane Eyre, who is a young woman who spends the first twenty years of her life learning to fight for herself.

Jane's biggest obstacle in her road toward freedom comes in the form of Rochester (Michael Fassbender), the towering owner of the Thornfield Estate, where which Jane finds herself a governess after graduating from her emotionally abusive boarding school. Entering the ominous Thornfield, she is acquainted with all its inhabitants, including the friendly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). She is also quickly acquainted with the mansion's more frightful spaces, with groans and shrieks filling the halls in the middle in the night. But it isn't until she stumbles upon Rochester himself, riding on his horse amidst the murky woods, that she is acquainted with the home's most forceful presence.

Jane's affair with Rochester is one of intrigue and mystery, and one that shouldn't be spoiled by any kind of summary here. What Fukunaga's film probably does best is structure Bronte's expansive narrative (which stretches well over four hundred pages) into a two-hour film that didn't feel scrunched or incomplete. Fukunaga (director of the 2009 hit film Sin Nombre, which I embarrassingly admit I've never seen) shows a gift for telling so much by showing so little. It helps when you're working with actors - like Fassbender and Dench - who are so adept at translating emotions with the most subtle of moves. Often, the film takes only a single scene to translate what took Bronte's prose took a great many pages to show.

Of course, there are times where Fukunaga downplays the emotion a little too much. Wasikowska, such a skilled young performer, had moments where she seemed to missing the passion and rebellion that is such a calling card of this willful character. There is never a moment of great melodrama in Jane Eyre, which is strange considering that is a story of inherent melodrama. But I do have respect with Fukunaga's more subtle storytelling, though I can question his occasional use of it with a story such as this. With a man as brooding as Rochester - played by an actor as exquisite as Fassbender - you should not shy away from allowing explosiveness.

Jane Eyre is a rather quaint film, in the end; expertly made and acted. There were a few moments where my interest wavered, but only a few. I'm sure lovers of the book will embrace it, since it's dedication to the spirit of the test seems unwavering. General audiences may have some trouble since its own chastity is real and does not have manipulated sexual tension the way certain films do. But the performances (especially from Fassbender and Dench) are superb, and it never becomes stuffy or pretentious as some English costume dramas are wont to do. It definitely isn't the masterpiece that some people will want it to be (all literary adaptations come equipped with its own group of rabbid fans), but it is certainly a welcome alternative to most of the dribble in theaters early this year.

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