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"Jane Eyre": Caught In A Drab Romance

Lilian Min |
March 3, 2011 | 2:38 a.m. PST

Associate Entertainment Editor

Focus Features
Focus Features
Lizzy Bennett, Scout Finch, Hermione Granger: these are some of the strongest female characters to ever grace literary pages, and later the big screen.

Now, in Cary Fukunaga’s second outing as a feature film director, Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) attempts to bring Jane Eyre, the strong-willed girl from Charlotte Brontë’s novel of the same name, to that same level of canonizing.

The film begins not with Jane’s childhood, but with a scene about 3/4ths through the novel, treating the material before those scenes as flashbacks.

Beyond the structural differences though, Jane Eyre’s storyline remains the same as the novel’s: an abused orphaned girl disowned by her guardians grows into the independently-minded governess at Thornfield Hall.

Yet no mid-19th century English novel would be complete without a crucial love story, and in this case, Jane’s romantic counterpart is Mr. Rochester (played by veteran actor Michael Fassbender), the intense but truly compassionate master of Thornfield Hall.

Easily the most intriguing part of the film, the evolution of Jane and Mr. Rochester’s relationship stitches the film together neatly. From their dramatic first meeting to their tender ending scenes together, the rapport between Wasikowska and Fassbender is tangible, although not very strong from the start.

And while Mr. Rochester’s pursuit of a relationship might seem unconventional (read: creepy) by today’s standards, those 1800s-era novels loved their impromptu, dramatic declarations of love (Mr. Darcy’s letter, anyone?), and with that context in mind, the tenderness between Jane and Mr. Rochester develops sweetly.

The movie itself seems to be built around the increasing passion between those two characters: in a film so drenched in dreary, desaturated lighting, the brightest, most joyous parts of the film are of Jane and Mr. Rochester together.

The truth is, without the romance with Mr. Rochester, Jane would not be much of a character at all. Wasikowska plays her with a rigidity that is probably meant to reflect Jane’s background of abuse and neglect.

Many of the shots in the film focus on Wasikowska’s wan figure and hopelessly despairing gaze; for the majority of the film, these expressions make her actions seem overdramatic and staged.  

When Mr. Rochester first enters the picture, Fassbender’s same overabundance of dramatic gesturing is also evident and distracting; his gazes are riveting to the point of being unnerving, and Fassbender occupies the screen awkwardly, striding around in blousy shirts and very tight pants.

But as these two characters come together, so too does the rest of the film, at least for brief moments.

Surrounding Jane and Mr. Rochester are a multitude of colorful characters: Jane’s bitter, treacherous aunt (played by an oddly cast Sally Hawkins, of Happy-Go-Lucky fame), Sinjin the preacher (played by Jaime Bell, with a most admirable set of sideburns), and Mrs. Fairfax (played by the always excellent Dame Judi Dench).

While in the beginning, these characters come off as stock (especially Jane’s aunt), everybody thaws out to reveal deeper depths of character and understanding, most of all Jane herself, although this thawing happens too late in the film to be of any great impact.

Of course, Jane Eyre is also a film about deception, but those moments of the film are rather staid; any shocks that do arrive are purely from visual elements, and when the big reveal does happen, it happens with little real fanfare.

But by the end, despite the roughness and awkwardness that surrounds much of the rest of the film, Jane Eyre closes gently and lovingly.

Is this film a masterful literary adaption in the vein of Atonement? Not quite, especially initially, but the sentiment of the film builds beautifully, and leaves the viewer with the impression of having peeked into what the rest of the film could have been.


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