Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Screenplay by Moira Buffini
(Based on a novel by Charlotte Brontë)
Key Performances: Mia Wasikowska with Jamie Bell & Michael Fassbender
Summary: A heroine created in the Victorian Era has indelibly imprinted herself on our cultural imagination. Her basic problem is the same problem every young person must face: whom can she trust? Here in the early 21st Century, “Jane” has a feisty core of self-reliance, so she learns to trust her own instincts, staying faithful to those who truly care for her, and keeping her distance from those who would use her for their own purposes. Can any girl do more?
Director Cary Fukunaga has deliberately created his Jane Eyre for the art house crowd, with a visual design completely committed to austere authenticity. The vast rugged moors of Northern England are beset by huge clouds and torrential rains pour forth, sometimes threatening to turn into impassable mounds of snow. The interiors are dark and gloomy; shadows engulf large rooms lit by tiny candles, and even in summer, a persistent chill mocks all the logs we see burning in the fireplaces.
Standing at a crossroads, all four directions equally bleak, Our Jane, in her simple dress, has hair wrapped tight around her head, and there’s no trace of make-up on her pale, thin face. If you’re looking for “realism,” here it is. But one questionable casting decision makes this whole just a tad less than the sum of its splendid parts.
Two weeks after another “Blue Oscar” ceremony (during which an endless stream of men from an overwhelmingly male list of nominees made speeches and accepted awards), two films anchored by teenage heroines opened in selected American cities.
I’ve now seen both of these films twice, and despite their many differences, I’m struck most forcefully by how much these two films have in common.
The two heroines, originally created in the Victorian Era, have indelibly imprinted themselves on our cultural imagination. In each case, long lists of film and television adaptations prove that audiences enjoy revisiting these two stories to see how their archetypical elements fit the current context.
Here in the early 21st Century, both “Jane” (as in Jane Eyre) and “Valerie” (aka Red Riding Hood) have a feisty core of self-reliance, and prefer independence (whatever the cost) to socially-sanctioned marriage without love. In both cases, the rejected suitors are depicted as great guys who adore our heroines and would strive mightily to make them happy. And they’re both handsome and well-spoken young men, albeit a bit on the reserved and proper side.
Both love objects, on the other hand, are smoldering, passionate, and often inarticulate. In each case, our heroine declares her love after our hero flirts with another woman to make her jealous. And without giving any details away, let me just say that our two heroines share remarkably similar fates—freely living for love at the edge of civilization with the partner of her choice.
But for all the many characters and plot elements which run parallel, these films are totally different in tone and style. Red Riding Hood, created for the multiplex crowd, is a vibrantly-designed, color-drenched extravaganza, whereas Jane Eyre, created for the art house crowd, grounds itself in austere authenticity.
On Friday, March 11, Red Riding Hood opened in 3,030 theatres nationwide, whereas Jane Eyre opened in exactly four theatres (in New York and California). I have no doubt which film my [mostly male] fellow film critics will prefer, but I’m actually far more interested in which film female audiences will prefer. For myself, I can honestly say I liked them both. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Specific thoughts about Jane Eyre
Director Cary Fukunaga has deliberately created his Jane Eyre for the art house crowd. Our Jane, wearing the same simple dresses day after day, has hair wrapped tight around her head, and there’s no trace of make-up on her pale, thin face. But the cinematography is exquisite, beautifully used to establish mood as well as location. If you’re looking for “realism,” here it is.
When we first meet her, Jane is in flight, running from unnamed sorrows. A tiny figure set against the vast rugged moors of Northern England, she stands alone at a crossroads, and all four directions look equally bleak. The skies above her are filled with huge clouds which block the sun and eventually bring forth torrential rains. What has brought her to this desolate state and how can she ever survive it?
Flashbacks take us to dark and gloomy interiors; shadows engulf large rooms lit by tiny candles, and even when it’s summer outside, a persistent chill mocks all the logs we see burning in fireplaces. Even if you haven’t read Brontë’s novel, or seen any of the numerous film and television adaptions, you can guess most of the backstory. Jane is an orphan cast off by rich relatives and sent to a boarding school one small step above a Dickensian workhouse. Fukunaga doesn’t spend much time on any of this because he knows he doesn’t need to; a few quick childhood scenes and Jane is already an adult eager to make her own choices.
Her first choice is to seek employment, and that leads her to Thornfield Hall, a large estate owned by one Edward Rochester and run by his distant relative Mrs. Fairfax. It’s probably not that far, as the crow flies, from Lowood School to Thornfield Hall, but Jane has lead a sheltered life; she knows nothing at all about these people and precious little about their way of life. Mrs. Fairfax drops ominous hints about Mr. Rochester’s past, but the only thing in evidence is a small girl named Adele. Mrs. Fairfax has hired Jane to be Adele’s governess.
One day Mrs. Fairfax finds Jane on the balcony gazing across the parapet. She’s bored by her surroundings and frustrated by her circumstances. Then Mr. Rochester arrives, bringing echoes of the outside world into Thornfield with him. He has little interest in the old woman and even less in the child, so he condescends to talk to the governess, ordering her (as an employer) to entertain him, and daring her (as a man) to amuse him.
Jane’s pulse begins to quicken, but soon something else in the house demands Mr. Rochester’s attention. Finding herself wrapped ever tighter in a spider’s web of lies, Jane finally flees, and now we’re all caught up and ready to begin Act Three.
Unlike most other film directors who’ve told this tale, Fukunaga is genuinely interested in what happens to Jane once she’s gone over the wall. Standing perplexed at the crossroads, she finally picks a direction and sticks to it, slogging on in a cruel and dangerous world, until she finally finds both a new job and a new home.
Then problems come to the boil again when a seemingly suitable young man wants to marry her. She has not chosen St. John Rivers, but he has chosen her. She is tired. Her courageous heart falters. Maybe it’s best to lean on St. John and let him make the big decisions about her future?
Jane’s problem is a problem every young person must face: whom can she trust? In the end, Jane learns to trust her instincts, stay faithful to those who truly care for her, and keep her distance from those who would use her for their own purposes. Can any girl do more?
Mia Wasikowska (pronounced “Vash-i-kov-ska”) anchors the film as Jane, her first genuine leading role after superlative supporting performances in Defiance (2008), That Evening Sun (2009), and The Kids Are All Right (2010). True, she also played “Alice” in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), but that was a special effects extravaganza with no real commitment to character development. Wasikowska is a beautiful young woman who makes herself outwardly plain, so that all of Jane’s curiosity, natural intelligence, and banked passion can come pouring through her eyes.
Jane’s two suitors are both played by very accomplished actors. Jamie Bell (as St. John Rivers) literally leapt to stardom in 2000, winning a BAFTA in his very first screen role as teenage dancer “Billy Elliott.” He’s been a fine Indy lead since, most notably in The Chumscrubber (2005) and Mister Foe (2007), and he’s also been a strong supporting player in multiplex films like King Kong (2006), Flags of our Fathers (2007), and The Eagle (2010). In 2008, Bell played “Asael,” the younger brother of Tuvia and Zus Bielski (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) in Edward Zwick’s Defiance (a relatively large role), whereas Wasikowska played Bell’s wife “Chaya” (a small but memorable role).
By contrast, Michael Fassbender (who is a full decade older than Bell), has worked primarily on television. In 2008, however, he played IRA activist “Bobby Sands” in Hunger (a film I called “labored and abstract”), and in 2009, he played the seductive rake “Connor” in Fish Tank (a film I absolutely love). He also had a supporting role in Inglorious Basterds (2009), but I can barely remember it. “Edward Rochester” may be Fassbender’s breakthrough role for mainstream audiences, but I’m frankly not convinced yet that he has the chops to play a romantic lead.
There are very few scenes in Jane Eyre not dominated by one of these three actors, but Judi Dench adds gravitas to “Mrs. Fairfax” (someone who suspects things she is unable to verbalize in part because of her role as Mr. Rochester’s employee and in part because of her own limited knowledge of the world outside Thornhill), and Sally Hawkins is chilling as “Mrs. Reed” (the aunt who sends Jane off to Lowood).
In one of Jane Eyre’s best scenes, Mrs. Reed summons Jane to her deathbed, but why? Jane craves a tender moment and maybe some kind of apology; she even offers to forgive her aunt, but Mrs. Reed wants none of it. Hawkins regards Wasikowska with the cold eye of a shark: Jane has cursed the Reed family, and now Mrs. Reed demands that Jane own the results.
Bottom line: I enjoyed this look back at Victorian times very much. I found most of the acting and all of the cinematography both aesthetically and emotionally satisfying, and once again I marveled at how, by articulating the constraints faced by the women of her own era, Charlotte Brontë had paved the way for mine.
Please do NOT read until after you’ve seen Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre is a long novel well over 300 pages long. Little Red Riding Hood is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale barely 3 pages long. Therefore many plot elements must be removed from the first and added to the second to make a coherent screenplay.
Two points about this adaptation of Jane Eyre:
Screenwriter Moira Buffini made a brilliant call when she decided to open the film with Jane in full flight, minimizing the chapters about Jane’s childhood and restoring St. John Rivers to a major player in the narrative—which he emphatically is not in most other versions. (Note that I’m only comparing feature length films here; made-for- television miniseries with multiple episodes have totally different structural requirements.)
The early image of Jane at the crossroads is definitive, making it clear that in this version of Jane Eyre, our heroine is a person who insists on making her own life choices regardless of the consequences. Charlotte Brontë surely knew she was writing at a time when few women thought they had such rights, and this alone makes Jane a radically new creature in English literature.
What Buffini jettisons is Brontë’s attack on the clergy. I don’t miss scenes of Mr. Brocklehurst’s insidious behavior at Lowood (starving young girls in God’s name and hacking off their curls with huge, monstrous scissors), but without this background, it’s hard to understand why Jane is always so guarded around St. John Rivers. When St. John asks Jane to marry him and travel with him to India, the news of his intention to become a missionary comes totally out of the blue, whereas in the novel, St. John has been studying “Hindoostanee” with Jane’s assistance for months, testing her thoroughly before proposing.
I appreciate that Jane returns to Mr. Rochester because she loves him. I applaud the fact that she has a choice of husbands and she exercises that choice freely at the end. I understand that love is ultimately a mystery and no one can predict who will set one’s heart aflutter. But for all that, what I actually felt was that Wasikowska had more chemistry with Bell than with Fassbender, therefore this Jane only returned to this Rochester because this screenplay demanded it.
Jan’s Final Addendum: Cary Fukunaga and Mia Wasikowska came to Chicago on March 6 for a special screening of Jane Eyre at our Gene Siskel Film Center. The next day, I met with them at the Peninsula Hotel. There were two other local critics in the room with us. We had all been at the preview/Q&A the night before.
To read my part of this conversation, visit:
© Jan Lisa Huttner (3/18/11)—Special for WomenArts
Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features