Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011)

Cary Fukunaga displays such an immediate grasp of the Gothic tones of Charlotte Brontë's eerie, macabre romance that the speed with which he loses his grip upon them is all the more frustrating. Whenever his camera follows the protagonist outdoors, or into the dimmest, grimiest recesses of Rochester's home, Jane Eyre overflows with atmosphere. Its cold, flora-less English countrysides and purulent candlelit interiors capture the darker moods of Brontë's novel better than any of the few adaptations I've seen.

The romance is another story. Brontë's Jane Eyre puts forth a disturbingly insular love affair between two lonely pariahs. It's one of the most passionate books I've ever read, yet almost as off-putting in its unchecked desires as a Twilight novel. Jane and Rochester become obsessed with each other because they have no one else in the world, stewing in their lust and pain and terrifying joy in their private heaven and hell. Fukunaga's film communicates practically none of this dangerous level of attraction, omitting the novel's most perilous demonstrations of twisted, isolated love and softening what remains. Beginning with such perfect solemnity, Jane Eyre soon turns into a listless period drama not even livened by the raving embodiment of uninhibited female sexuality living in the attic.

But before the film even gets to Jane and Rochester's romance, it first does its damnedest to strip away dramatic tension with its errant timeline jumps, an error egregious for sapping the brilliant scenes of Jane's youth. These childhood scenes boil down the eeriness, terror, and crippling insurmountable oppression of Jane's abuse by relatives and schoolmasters to their despairing essence. Fukunaga makes even the doomed friendship between Jane and Helen more palpably devastating in this manner, reducing their screentime together to essentially meeting and Helen's last night alive. As they say, it's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, and this Jane does not even get to enjoy a brief respite of companionship.

The childhood scenes also capture that peculiar blend of strength and frailty in the girl that Mia Wasikowska flawlessly portrays as the adult Jane. Thin and pale, Wasikowska looks as if she won't even make it past the opening, pre-flashback shots stumbling around the foggy, bleak countryside with only her ragged, panting breath for a soundtrack. But her slight frame also reveals so much bone structure that that which is visible on her is sharp, angular and hardened. Rochester finds himself attracted to Jane as much for her pointed directness as her kindness, and the actress exudes forthright immediacy in every gesture.

Wasikowska is the saving grace of the film, offering a masterclass in acting far beyond her years. She knows how to position herself in every shot for maximum effect, either to assert a strength that never ceases to surprise or a vulnerability that cannot shatter her adamantine will but can bring her to the verge of collapse. It's a performance so minutely controlled that you can turn the sound off and not miss anything Jane communicates throughout the film. And Wasikowska does this within the stiff-upper-lip confines of period-style acting, her gestures never huge but unfurling huge swaths of pain, desire, and sorrow.

If only she clicked with Rochester. Michael Fassbender has quickly and justifiably emerged as one of the finest actors of his generation, but his Rochester is curiously inert. Though vague tendrils of lust wrap around his eyes when he first converses/engages in a verbal sparring match with Jane, Fassbender never properly communicates the crippling desire Rochester feels for Jane. Part of this isn't his fault—Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini strip away his most desperate actions, especially the darkly hysterical setpiece of him dressing up as a gypsy fortuneteller to drive away his ostensible fiancée and test Jane—giving him almost nothing to do past the 45-minute mark. Fassbender beautifully renders Rochester's boorishness, but that side of Rochester fades quickly to be replaced, in theory, by the lovesick man incapable of taming himself. In practice, however, Fassbender soon has little to do save brood, reducing Rochester's terrifying intemperance to the Edward Cullen-esque passionate dispassion that (very) indirectly grew out of Rochester in the first place.

For a fleeting moment I thought Jane Eyre would be one of the finest literary adaptations in recent memory, Fukunaga's gifted direction generating gulfs of mood out of his wordless opening shots and Wasikowska's pitch-perfect performance nailing Jane even when the script fails to understand the character. Sadly, its temporal bouncing and too-stripped narrative lose focus and attention before the film moves past its first act. Neither a great film nor even a particularly good one, Jane Eyre nevertheless flirts so boldly with greatness that its failure to live up to its own ambition merely disappoints. And I'd gladly watch it again to see Wasikowska blow away a decade's worth of corseted Keira Knightley gigs in one shot.


  1. This was a wonderful movie. I just love period pieces. they usually have a compelling story with a lot of good drama.

  2. I'd like to think that cinema would have been better if Fukunaga and Andrea Arnold switched projects. The book Jane Eyre is more descriptive and Wuthering Heights is people talking to each other, the latter of which happens more in Fukunaga's film. If any of that makes sense.

    I actually think this movie is top ten material just because of how it looks and how Wasikowska (inconsistent everywhere else) has one of the year's best perfs.

  3. I can see that, but I think it loses its richness precisely when people are speaking to each other. When Wasikowsa spends most of the time angling herself and playing out her love and defiance over her face, the film is electric. When she and Fassy have to talk about that love, it hits a wall. So while I wouldn't have minded Arnold's visual skills at play here, I don't know to what degree Wuthering Heights might have benefited from the swap, since it's talkier. (Then again, I would have liked Arnold here just because I love this book and can't stand WH.)