They say that if you want to write a decent novel, you should write from your own experiences. It is no surprise then that Charlotte Bronte, acclaimed author and protofeminist icon, based the majority of her most famous book – Jane Eyre – on her own life. Born into a large family, after her mother died, Charlotte and her siblings were forced to live with their aunt, soon being exported out to a boarding school where they were generally treated pretty badly, and made to live in some fairly terrible conditions – directly leading to the death of one of her sisters from tuberculosis. After her education, Charlotte would go on to be a Governess for various young wards, before marrying a parish priest; although it would be discovered, after her death, that she long harboured strong feelings for a married man who she had taught under during her years as a Governess and teacher. Over the years since, Jane Eyre – and Charlotte Bronte herself – have come to be regarded as staples in the literary word; classics to be taught at school; and examples of early feminist ideas and independent, free-thinking women. But, in amidst the sea of accompanying work – not just from the other Brontes (e.g. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights), but also from the likes of the preceding author Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) – it has often been forgotten just how autobiographical Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was, and just how personal the titular character’s journey was.
The story follows a young woman, fighting her way through the storm-ridden moors, to land on the doorsteps of a family – two sisters and a brother – who kindly take her in. As she rests and recuperates, and attempts to start a new life; she reflects upon everything that has happened to bring her to this place – the loss of her parents that saw her left with her strict aunt and physically abusive cousins; the horrendous boarding school that she was dispatched to; and her eventual tour as a Governess to the ward of the mysterious Mr Rochester, with whom she developed an irrepressible bond. What happened to send her running through the moors on that fateful day?
Over the decades, there have been many different adaptations of literary classics like this, but only a few truly stand out from the crowd; and the majority of them have been sponsored by the BBC. Pride and Prejudice had an expansive, much-loved TV mini-series back in the eighties, as well as the excellent 2005 Keira Knightley movie, with a pared-down, streamlined story which was surprisingly effective. Jane Eyre has also had several adaptations – including a well-received 2006 BBC mini-series (with Ruth Wilson, the enigmatic serial-killer companion from Luther) – but it has also been fairly underappreciated in terms of cinematic adaptations, having had little recently other than a nineties film version starring a woefully miscast William Hurt. Until now.
Director Cary Fukunaga’s sophomore vehicle (after his indie debut Sin Nombre wooed festival audiences) is a moody, at times lavish, at times emotive experience, whose characters slowly seep their way under your skin; drawing you in as you follow them on their voyage through life and love. Cleverly playing around with the timeline using flashforwards and flashbacks, Fukunaga certainly does not take the ‘Pride and Prejudice 2005’ approach to retelling Charlotte Bronte’s classic, attempting instead to tell pretty-much the entire story. This is both a good and a bad thing because, whilst Bronte fans will be pleased to see the majority of her work brought to life on the Big Screen (they find the time to fit in much more than just the basics), the result – unlike Pride and Prejudice – appears to skimp slightly on the central love story. It’s only slight, but it is enough to leave you out of synch with the movie for a few minutes about halfway through, where you play catch-up to the seemingly accelerated progress of the core characters’ relationship. Thankfully, the strong, important moments between the two leads manage to pull you back in and, missteps aside, you soon find yourself re-immersed in the mysterious world of Jane Eyre.
Mia Wasikowska, who recently brought Lewis Carroll’s Alice to life in the disappointingly flawed Depp/Burton collaboration Alice in Wonderland (3D!), is in herself quite a mysterious, intriguing creature; distinctive in looks – both unconventionally attractive and inexplicably alluring – she is perfectly cast as Jane, herself a strong but elusive character; eminently magnetic but also intangibly ethereal. Hard to pin down. In fact, it’s the young girl who portrays the younger Jane, plagued by a nasty aunt and cousins, and unjustly punished by the staff at the boarding school, who threatens to derail the character fairly early on; bringing the forthright young lady to life with a (hopefully purposefully) intrusive form of intonation, and invasive manner about her. Thankfully, Wasikowska’s rendition of the adult Jane actually bonds quite well with the representation of her as a child – she’s far less aggressive, and, in fact, really quite reserved and hard-to-read; but, since we’ve seen her outspoken behaviour as a child, we get a better idea of what she would like to say, even if, as an adult, she has now learned to be more diplomatic. This also works well when she is pushed to speak her mind; normally at the instigation of the frustrating and forthright Mr Rochester, who turns out to be both her engaging opponent and her elusive companion in life.
Rochester is supposed to be a much older, and not particularly handsome gentleman than what you might find here (certainly the pivotal conversation between the two, where they talk about one another’s lack of beauty seems a bit of a stretch) but, then again, Mia Wasikowska’s Jane, whilst being – as stated – not conventionally attractive; is also far from the “plain Jane” you might have expected. In fact, although rising star Michael Fassbender (who proved his worth in plenty of indie flicks like Fish Tank and Hunger, before taking on Hollywood with X-Men: First Class – and remaining a high point of the unbalanced reboot/prequel) is hard to regard as unattractive, he makes for a classically Byronic ‘antagonist’, brooding and snapping at the world around him with arrogant disdain; agitating and provoking Jane at every possible stage; drawing in well within her personal boundaries and always hinting and alluding to a stronger bond between them; but, at the end of the day, remaining just as elusive as Jane herself in terms of honest admission of how they feel about each other. Jane shades her feelings – it’s what she has learned over the years; her hardened exterior almost impenetrable to all but the most direct attacks (which, thankfully, Rochester is far from reluctant to pursue). Rochester, despite his outgoing personality, appears to just be toying with Jane, as if marrying a mere Governess would be well below his standing, but flirting with her is still perfectly acceptable – you could certainly see how Jane might get the wrong impression, particularly when he invites a potential suitor to the house for a party; a woman of a supposedly higher class, who perpetually taunts Jane for being a lizard-like Governess – and yet he has just as many secrets behind his brash, equally hardened, but perhaps more porcupine-like exterior.
As stated, just about the only thing that is wrong with this wonderful pairing –this duet of excellent performances, perfectly matched with unquestionable chemistry – is the fact that it is simply not given quite enough time to organically develop. At some point in the proceedings, the couple appear to jump from a fairly early stage in their potential relationship, to practically being on-the-eve-of-marriage; and this, whilst it may have worked over the course of several chapters in the book – given more time to naturally develop – felt a little hurried here. That’s not to say that it doesn’t, ultimately, work; that you don’t, eventually, feel completely sold on their relationship and their mutual feelings; just that you have to momentarily pause to suspend disbelief at one stage in the narrative and, should you do so, you will pass through the barrier and be able to immerse yourself into the ensuing situations that these two get involved in. If, however, you don’t accept this ‘jump-cut’ in terms of their relationship development, then this will be the point at which the movie loses you.
Wasikowska and Fassbender’s core performances are the primary reasons to watch this strong adaptation of the classic romance, but they are not the only reasons, with keen support coming from several notable supporting actors – Judi Dench looking particularly old (especially when compared to her more ‘youthful’ M from the last few Bond movies) as Mr Rochester’s housekeeper, although I think she has been intentionally made-up to look this way because that is exactly what the character requires. A far more restrained performance than you might expect from the quintessentially tough-persona veteran actress, she is not given as much screentime as you may have liked, but still does her best with what little time she has got. Billy Elliott himself, Jamie Bell, plays St. John Rivers, the parish priest who takes in Jane at the flash-forward start of the movie; and we also get smaller roles for some other British performers, like 28 Days Later’s Imogen Poots – who plays Mr Rochester’s potential suitor, the sniping Blanche – and Sophie Ward (a regular on Holby City, who has played in several classic adaptations before, including Wuthering Heights) as Blanche’s equally prissy mother.
Beyond the performances, this sophomore directorial effort has also got some great Malickian touches in its cinematography and non-linear narrative form of storytelling – the former coming into play most notable during Jane’s wistful exploration of the grounds of Mr Rochester’s estate (compare it to Pocahontas’ equivalent behaviour in Malick’s The New World, or even the wife’s graceful, butterfly-like ‘floating’ in his more recent The Tree of Life); and the latter evident from his initial gamble of throwing the audience a potentially convoluted opening punch of flash-forward followed by three-pronged flashback: early childhood, boarding school, and life at the Rochester Estate. Although, by today’s standards of storytelling (Inception, Source Code, Memento), this does not seem all that adventurous; for a classic like Jane Eyre – which could have gone horribly wrong – it was quite a daring attempt to spice things up, which left the familiar, arguably massively predictable story a little more interesting and eventful even for the most ‘classically’-educated viewers. And it certainly is intriguing to reflect upon the significance of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel when looking at this new production – Jane Eyre (and, as a result, Bronte herself) is one of the most important proto-feminist icons; an inspiration in the movements across the decades, or Centuries, that followed; and yet the story of Jane Eyre is so clearly entwined with Bronte herself that it might as well have been called ‘the Diary of Charlotte Bronte’. It’s even written in first-person, further drawing you in as being a personal work. In this respect, it is intriguing to look at what has been made of the life of this young woman all that time ago (whether we’re talking about Bronte or Eyre is almost a moot point), how it has been used as a poster-campaign for independent-thinking, strong-willed women across the ages; and see the actual hidden tragedy that it reveals. Bronte’s work may have gone on to pave the way for eventual freedom for independent women, but it certainly did not leave her with the outcome which she so clearly wanted – in fact it was arguably the reverse. Still, after all this time, who knows what she, as an author, did to the characters to morph them from the real-life entities which they are clearly derived from, and into the fictitious interpretations which we see now. It’s a writer’s prerogative, after all, but it certainly leaves a pause for thought that, sometimes, all these classic literary works – however universally and eternally applicable their central themes and messages may be – are just personal voyages, and ones which may have ended fairly tragically in real life.
There is still something about this 2011 BBC-sponsored movie adaptation of Jane Eyre which does not quite bring it up to the giddy heights of the masterful 2005 rendition of Pride and Prejudice; but it is of an almost comparable standard in terms of quality, and certainly boasts equally strong (if not even more capable) leads, and offers an arguably more comprehensive rendition of the original source material. Though it still sacrifices something along the way. I think that the missed beat in the relationship development between the core characters would have made all the difference; but I’m sure others might feel that this there was something more substantial, which brings the overall production down. At the end of the day, it will come down to how much you get swept up by the experience, and whether or not you are prepared to forgive the film its – in my opinion, relatively small – faults, in favour of fully immersing yourself in Charlotte Bronte’s very personal, somewhat autobiographical world, veritably brought to life here. It’s certainly not hard to get lost in the mysterious gaze of Jane Eyre, the thousand-yard stare which betrays so much more beneath it; and in the classic tale of romance and tragedy which remains immortally rich and relevant to this day. Highly recommended.
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