Here we are again, engaged by the act of illuminating the strict social decorum of times long past, then watching it be called out for its irrelevance by a wistful young girl and her encroaching free spirit caked with feminist bravery. Period pieces are exhaustively retold so often that the masterstrokes become repetitive, but with Pride and Prejudice and Bright Star we’re seeing a revival that brings more to the table than mere set dressing and costume design.
Jane Eyre is another of these delights. It takes a classic that’s been dragged through the mud by unskilled filmmakers and turns it into a message to the modern world as significant today as it was when first written. The surprise here is that the filmmaker behind it, Cary Fukunaga, is another of these unproven types. It’s obvious in some of the missteps, but doesn’t change the fact that what he gets right is right-minded and will resonate with a new generation of bookworms.
We’re introduced to the inner fears of our title character before her face can be seen. Muddy landscapes are assaulted by rain as a distant figure plods through the weather with no discernible destination. This is Jane’s frightening loneliness, her lack of options getting out from under the nature of her life, and the first of many scenes where natural light conveys more of the story’s undercurrent than the dialogue does. It’s just a heavy dose of brilliance away from being Terrence Malick’s Jane Eyre.
Once that dreary bit is out of the way, the film unravels a much-too-hurried pass over all of the awfulness compounded on Jane’s childhood. Many of the finest performances to be had from opening credits to close are wedged into a handful of lines or less, from the acidic hatefulness of Sally Hawkins, playing the role of Jane’s adoptive aunt, to a crawling interrogation by the Lowood School clergyman, brought to us by actor Simon McBurney.
That’s not all it’s going to take for us to really get inside of a title character to the same degree that the novel’s pace affords, but it’ll have to be enough because this Jane Eyre is a bright young starlet vehicle from beginning to end, never letting the story’s traditional continuity get in the way of presenting the semi-adult life of the girl as early and often as Fukunaga feels compelled to.
The quality of the movie suffers slightly for it, but I can’t say I blame him. Mia Wasikowska is a much better Eyre than I imagined her to be. Sometimes you see an actress in a studio press photo and with cynical eyes you question her Hollywood buzz worthiness, but this one movie is all it’ll take for you to see Wasikowska for the scene stealer she is. Mia isn’t just filling the parts that Claire Danes aged out of, she’s pretty much demanding them with this much control over her craft at twenty-one.
Jane’s posture is painful to emulate and her devilish smirk conveys an ember of life within a soul that’s beaten back by lowered self-esteem. If, for this actress, Alice in Wonderland was her film debut, Jane Eyre is her film debeaut, with pinned back hair strangling her scalp and a wardrobe range of navy blue to woolen grey. Her piercing observation both in her gaze and in her wit often makes the audience feel as if they’ve been laid bare across a small, dark room with her, POV Mr. Rochester if you will.
Ah yes, Rochester. I almost forgot that some of you haven’t read the novel. So Jane Eyre is charged with educating a young French girl who’s mother left her behind after flirting her way into the man’s pockets. The funniest scene in the film concerns the pseudo-sexuality this Lolita picked up from her mom and triggers priceless reaction shots of the film’s leading characters. I was never clear on whether or not Adele is actually Mr. Rochester’s daughter but then I doubt he is, either.
Upon meeting for the first time (knowing each other’s identity), Jane and her boss fall into a natural acknowledgment. Unsubtle flirtation from the very start is a wonderful contrast to Mia Wasikowska’s otherwise sly, near hidden clues to her deeper self, but after that initial charge it becomes too much, too fast. I suppose that helps us share in her disorientation, but without time to pull back for even a moment before there’s blatant reason to, we aren’t witnessing an honest progression between two lost and lonelies. This results in a lack of chemistry between the wiry framed malcontent and his vulnerable target.
Michael Fassbender may not enjoy his ability to lose himself in the variability of his parts once he steps into the shoes of Magneto in an upcoming X-Men film, so enjoy it while you can (tell me who he played in Inglourious Basterds within minutes after viewing Jane Eyre and I’m colored impressed). Here, the Irish actor doesn’t have as much a handle on the language as his co-star. There were times I could see in his eyes that he struggles to sell dialogue like “I’m sure she’d regenerate me with a vengeance.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t portray the sexual threat with intense precision, but the film’s breakneck pace makes it impossible for these actors to find common ground. Instead, they’re abruptly thrown together as two immovable objects of affection. It’s worth noting that in a story consumed by the risky business of bedroom rebellion, we’re treated to little beyond a stolen kiss and a plea on one knee.
An arresting performance piece, you’ll see past the flaws of this year’s Jane Eyre. It’s a small film with ideas too ambitious for the man behind the camera. Cary Fukunaga’s second film is well worth your time, but I’m still waiting for him to balance narratives with the same professionalism that his cast brings.