dir: Cary Fukunaga
Jane Eyre, eh? Prestige costume drama Oscar bait, eh?
Just imagine all the doilies and lace trimmings and bustles akimbo all over the place.
This just screams of potential audiences climbing over each other’s corpses, desperately trying to get to the box office in order to get tickets to the latest Brontean Blockbuster.
Despite the fact that the book presumably is still all over those high school reading lists for English or English Lit or whatever classes haven’t been cancelled and replaced with Glee-like activities (proudly sponsored by some repellent lip gloss), I’ve never read it, and never seen the dozens and dozens of versions of it that have been expelled onto an unwilling public.
I’d always lumped it in with all that Regency-era frippery like all of Jane Austen’s pap, and always assumed it to be on a par. You know, attractive and spirited but somewhat impoverished young ladies desperate to get married to someone who seems to treat them mean initially, but turns out to be more rad than cad, and who welcomes their spiritedness instead of having them incarcerated in a sanatorium for being hysterical.
Jane Eyre, I know now from having watched this flick, is nothing like that. It’s about an intelligent and spirited young lady who gets multiple raw deals in life through no fault of her own (played by Australia’s own Mia Wasikowska). The story she’s in is a dark and gloomy one, both literally and aesthetically. It is, apparently, more from the Gothic-Romantic literary persuasion, where you could almost mistake it for a tale of horror.
Most of the story seems to be told in flashback, as the adult Jane flees crying across forbidding moors, lost and alone, as it rains. Whatever bit of the English countryside she’s in, it might be pastoral and bucolic and all that, and all nature-y, but it’s also gloomy, lonely and bleak. Just the kind of place I love.
She stumbles to a doorway, and is saved by some kind girls acting like geese, and then the story reverts back to her childhood, as the main, actual story kicks in.
As an orphaned girl brought up by a cruel aunt, Jane (played as a child by Amelia Clarkson) is at the mercy of her relatives and of arbitrary authorities, all of them adult, most of them religious. She is abused, taunted and hated, and accused of being dishonest. Of all the torments she endures, the one she cannot countenance or endure without pushing back is the accusation of being dishonest, a liar.
No, fuck that noise. She’s not going to take that lying down. She fights and fights in vain, but the clarity of her moral thought is precise: She will take anything except the assertion that she’s done something wrong or false when she hasn’t.
Needless to say, this makes everyone hate the self-righteous little prig. This moral certainty, however, comes to be her only life preserver, seeing as she has no other oasis or respite from the random cruelty and venality that surrounds. It’s the only anchor in a storm.
She grows up to be an intelligent and forthright young lady, with limited opportunities open to her because of the patriarchal strait-jacket smothering women of the era, who not only lacked the right to vote, but lack actual self-determination as well. Distinct presumably from the other women of her time, Jane knows what she’s missing out on, what’s perpetually out of reach because she can’t make that many decisions governing her own life and direction.
Ah, the curse of intelligence and perspective. Mia Wasikowska does brilliantly with a complex character, and she does it without straining at all. In fact, she embodies the character quite effortlessly, and, despite the amount of times it’s been played, I don’t think it’s an easy character to get across.
Most people (this is a terrible assumption on my part, probably) like me see stuff set in this kind of era, and they mostly associate it with Austen this and Austen that. Frills and bonnets equals a slightly seriously girl surrounded by giggly girls, all of whom are dying to get married, as it’s the only sport in town. Then you have a Lizzy Bennett or an Elinor Dashwood, female characters smarter than the geese around them, who are no less susceptible to the strictures of their times, or the lure of romantic love, and its travails.
Jane Eyre is somewhat singular in comparison to them, and Mia Wasikowska plays her significantly differently that you might expect. Austen in comparison is obsessed with courtly manners, witty retorts, marriage, fans, marriage and dithering elder matriarchs whose every other piece of dialogue is like a chimneysweep’s brush in a painful place. Bronte, through Eyre, seems to be more about having a woman grow through the crucible of hardship, and instead of remaining brainless, or becoming embittered by her lot in life, to strive for whatever she can, even if what she imagines is pretty limited.
When she speaks of the almost choking sensation she feels when she contemplates all that’s beyond the reach dictated to her by society, or outside of her experience that her spirit longs for, well, I believed her. The character becomes completely believable, even if we don’t really see how she became the extraordinary woman she’s become.
And yet, with all that her intellect, strength of character and moral discipline have brought her, she’s still just a naïve girl in some senses, and thus is almost completely helpless in the face of love. Mia does wonderfully well conveying that contradiction.
This flick, and story, of course has a whole bunch of other elements to it, not least of which is the object of her girlish affections, being the archetypal Byronic character of Edward Rochester. Oh, Michael Fassbender, you most excellent of actors, there’s practically nothing I won’t watch if you’re in it. You were amazing as Bobby Sands in Hunger, you were tremendous as Magneto in that latest X-Men flick, and great in Inglourious Basterds,you’re just great in every goddamn flick you’re in. Of course you’re great as Rochester as well.
Apart from the girl meets boy, girl works for boy as governess, boy torments all and sundry with his smoky good looks and manic-depressive behaviour due to the dark secret that plagues his life, there’s a complexity to their relationship that isn’t commonplace as depicted. He, being Fassbender, conveys amazingly, at least for most of the flick’s duration, this almost palpable confusion as to why he finds Jane so compelling. When he’s not luring her with his ‘come hither and fuck me’ eyes, he’s looking at her like she’s a talking and dancing cat, or some other miraculous kind of creation.
No, that’s not fair, but a lot of the time he’s staring at her like he can’t believe she’s as awesome as she is. He vacillates between cruel poses and world-weariness, with a strange desire to find some kind of solace in the arms and, eventually presumably, the vagina of Jane Eyre.
Oh, you can’t talk like that, that’s just fucking rude, that is.
The place they’re trapped in, being his stately, crenellated and very forbidding estate of Thornfield Hall, surrounded as it is by the gloom, would be the perfect setting for all sorts of horror shenanigans and ghostly transpirings. Whenever it’s not the middle of the day with the meagre sun weakly trying to butt its way into the gloom, it is pitch black darkness, sporadically lit by lit candles or the like. It really can be a horrifying place. The director, and, more likely the cinematographer, do a tremendous job lighting the night scenes, which there’s an abundance of, like it’s set in an ancient cave deep, deep underground. It really adds to the oppressive atmosphere, if you like that sort of thing, and, let’s face it, what person prone to depression doesn’t?
The salient fact about the stately country manor on the moors is that it’s not haunted by the dead, but by the living. I won’t say much more about the other aspects of the story, not just to avoid centuries-old spoilers, but to avoid making it seem melodramatic in the extreme, which it most certainly is. All I can say is that, not having read the book, I commend the makers of this flick, and the actors and their performances in it, because it made a ‘classic’ come alive and seem vital and important without having to gussy it up or Baz Luhrmanify it in the slightest. Fassbender and Wasikowska are great together, and the whole dour production lives up to the legacy it originates from.
I don’t really know if there’s much of an audience for this, seeing how different it is (but not in a flashy way) from the other sorts of period piece costume dramas that at least get some attention at the box office and some play in the public’s consciousness. At the very least it’ll give lazy high school students something to watch when they can’t be bothered reading the Cliff Notes to the novel. And, even better, it gives lazy English teachers something to play in class.
8 times this is one ‘classic’ that could not be improved by the addition of zombies, sea monsters or androids out of 10
“You are altogether a human being, Jane.”
- “I conscientiously believe so.” – Jane Eyre