Jane Eyre (2011)

09 September 2011

MP here

Firstly, a brief contextual confession: I've never read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and before today was unfamiliar with its plot. But then, the same thing goes for many other films reviewed here: Submarine, 127 Hours, Brighton Rock, The Ghost, Incendies, The Killer Inside Me, Never Let Me Go, Rabbit Hole and True Grit are all adaptated from novels or plays. (Plus, these things even out: next week I'm seeing a film adapted from one of my favourite novels.) So, though I never felt the need to embark upon disclaimers for any of those other films listed - probably because none of them were written in 1847 or are perceived as canonical texts - it might be worth noting at the outset here that this review is of a film adaptation of a book I've never read and whose innumerable previous adaptations I've never seen.

Adapted for the screen by Moira Buffini - who wrote the screenplay for 2010's Tamara Drewe from a Posy Simmonds graphic novel - Jane Eyre stars Mia Wasikowska in the title role, who as a ten-year-old orphan is cast out of her aunt's house after standing up for herself against a bullying cousin. After enduring life at an oppressive charity school, Jane graduates and is employed as a young governness at Thornfield Hall, whose master Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender) falls for her. An unspoken desire ensues; Jane retains a professional reserve in the name of self-respect, telling her employer she is his "paid subordinate". Clearly intrigued by Rochester, she is unaware of the dark secret he keeps from everyone; its revelation propels the film into its third act.

Beginning with our eponymous heroine fainting with exhaustion on the doorstep of a house inhabited by a clergyman and his two sisters, the film unfolds firstly in flashback, its scenes depicting Jane's early years appearing more necessarily expository than immediately immersive. As such, whereas the serialised nature of the original publication presumably allowed for a consistent detail given to each episode of Jane's life, here things come off as a mere backdrop to more substantial proceedings - the lack of conviction with which Jamie Bell, as the clergyman by whom Jane's life is saved in the opening sequence, carries facial hair in comparison to Michael Fassbender seems an unintentional confirmation of this.

Rochester's entry brings with it a much needed pulse, and the first conversation between Jane and him imbues an intensity and intrigue hitherto lacking in the film. As the narrative catches up with its beginning only so it can complete its final act with the same kind of brevity with which its first reels developed, so the middle section of the film is its most solid and interesting. As a whole, though, the work feels condensed, though not sufficiently narrowed enough to focus on one particular theme with any lasting effect. The class tensions that simmer beneath a scene in which Jane is invited by Rochester to attend a party he is hosting for friends might have been better emphasised, for instance, while the underlying Gothicism of the setting doesn't seem encroaching enough.

For all that, though, the film has its strengths. In the lead role, Wasikowska has a likeable and commanding presence opposite more experienced performers such as Judi Dench (as Thornfield Manor's housekeeper), Sally Hawkins (as Aunt Reed) and even Jamie Bell (as clergyman St. John Rivers). As Rochester, Fassbender is credible and certainly alluring, though his most mysterious trait might be his accent, barely sustained from line to line. The reserve with which Jane and Rochester's mutual desire develops has a carefully paced tenderness, evident most, paradoxically, when they are parted, as for instance that brief sequence in which Jane walks in solitude on Thornfield's grounds longing for the absent master to return.

Cary Fukunaga directs with the same keen sense of timing that made his Sin Nombre (2009) so visually economical and fresh: a scene very early on, in which young Jane (Amelia Clarkson) is hit in the face with a book by her older cousin John Reed (Submarine's Craig Roberts), displays a talent in blunt shocks. Sin Nombre, though, retained its tensions through a kind of stylised symmetry and visual symbolism that allowed it to depict whimsy in romance against reality in violence; Jane Eyre seems to lack this tension precisely because its overall duration is caught between the sophisticatedly arty and the permissibly marketable.

As such, Adriano Goldman's fine cinematography might have been better served by a more daring running time, by which the inner torment that drives Rochester, or the quiet anguish that Jane embodies, would have had a more stable platform, both visually and temporally. The wonderful establishing shots and the universal solitude of the interiors might have been heightened significantly had the film not been so condensed for broader consumption.

But perhaps that's a wish for a different film altogether.