Saturday, March 19, 2011
Just to prove that Jane Austen isn't the only dead woman writer Hollywood adores, here's the latest adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" (opened March 18 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas).
IMDb lists more than two-dozen film and television adaptations of "Jane Eyre" beginning with a 1910 silent film. My favorite has always been the 1943 version with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. Fontaine epitomized the plain but luminous beauty of Jane and Welles was the perfect brooding and mysterious romantic interest. Subsequent adaptations may have been more faithful or more feminist or more historically accurate but that 1943 version, which I saw when I was young, is the version fixed in my brain as the one that captured the essence of the book for me.
This latest adaptation comes from Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director who gave us the superb "Sin Nombre" in 2009. Once again he is looking to a tale of a young women facing difficult challenges. In case you didn't have to read "Jane Eyre" in school, here's a quick rundown. Jane (Amelia Clarkson for young Jane and then Mia Wasikowska for the adult Jane) is an orphan left in the care of a relative who wants nothing more than to get rid of her. So she's carted off to a boarding school where she is treated poorly because of her lack of social status. She eventually ends up as a governess at Thornfield Hall where her employer, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), proves a brooding and enigmatic figure. An attraction develops between the two but a dark secret keeps them apart.
Bronte's novel was considered ahead of its time for presenting a female protagonist who is strong-willed, passionate, and thinks for herself. Bronte also used her character and her novel to comment on the social conditions of the time but at the same time delivering a love story with a brooding Byronic character to please the masses.
"Jane Eyre" provides a solid and compelling tale of a young girl maturing into a confident woman and living her life according to her ideals and strong moral values. Unfortunately, it's rare for a filmmaker to find a way to bring the story to life so that it doesn't feel like an English Lit class lesson. Fukunaga falls into this same trap. He tries to heighten the action by starting the film at the midpoint of the novel. So we come upon Jane as she is fleeing Thornfield Hall and then we are taken back in time to when she was a child. This narrative structure allows Fukunaga to start at a more dramatic point in the story but it really serves no real benefit. In fact, the shifting back and forth in time tends to confuse and complicate the very compelling linear storyline. Jane's story is one of triumphing over a series of obstacles. So following her from childhood on allows us to take satisfaction in each hard won accomplishment. By chopping up the narrative we lose that feeling.
Fukunaga does cast his film well and Wasikowska (she was Alice in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland") is a solid choice for Jane. Like Joan Fontaine, she can look plain yet still display a radiance that seems to come from within. Fassbender is good as Rochester but he's not quite the darkly brooding Byronic character of Bronte's novel. We should be both attracted and a little scared by him but Fassbender's performance softens the character's rough edges.
As he did in "Sin Nombre," Fukunaga gets the details of the environment right. We feel the damp darkness of 19th century English countryside homes. The rooms seem lit only by the candles and fires, and we feel a bit claustrophobic at times. You really get a sense of how isolated you can be and how little you can do when out in the country without electricity. He also gets the social details right as he conveys the sense of class structure of the time. Like Bronte, Fukunaga wants to tell a good story as well as look to the social issues impacting his characters.
"Jane Eyre" (PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content) is like having oatmeal for breakfast – it's good for you but rather plain and unexciting. This is a well-mounted and well-intentioned production yet it never really sparks any passions.
Companion viewing: "Jane Eyre" (1943), "Wuthering Heights" (1939), "Sense and Sensibility" (1995), "Emma"