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26.4.11

For Your Consideration: 'Jane Eyre'

Charlotte Brontë's classic novel Jane Eyre has been transformed into film too many times, going back at least to the 1943 classic with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine (not to mention a score by none other than Bernard Herrmann and a cameo for the young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane's only friend at her cruel boarding school). The most recent attempt for the big screen was by Franco Zeffirelli (with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg, somewhat improbably), and the BBC (or a similar network) seems to undertake an adaptation about once each decade, most recently an excellent mini-series by the BBC in 2006. This latest version was adapted for the screen by breakout writer Moira Buffini, who made the ingenious choice to tell the story in an order other than the chronological one found in Brontë's novel. The film begins with the novel's second plot, with Jane found on the heath by St. John Rivers and his sisters, which makes that part of the story seem much less like a cumbersome add-on, a Romantic deus ex machina that Brontë used to tie up the loose ends as Jane gets a fortune.

As directed by Cary Fukunaga, in his first major feature after Sin Nombre, which had some success at Sundance, this is a stylish film that plays heavily on the ghost-story associations of the source novel, long on Gothic gloom and happily short on mawkish sentiment. There is nothing about the film as an adaptation of an over-adapted story that demands viewing, but it is beautifully shot (cinematography by Adriano Goldman), well acted, and the novel's long, sprawling narrative is convincingly streamlined. Anyone who enjoys watching English history pictures will enjoy this one, too. We are clearly going to be seeing more of the young, Australian-born actress Mia Wasikowska, last noted as a relative newcomer and the best part of The Kids Are All Right. She also starred in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, a movie that we enjoyed very much but did not get around to reviewing. Now she has the title role in Jane Eyre, and her performance and look are quite similar to that of Ruth Wilson in the 2006 TV series: with hair framing her face too close and an emotionless pallor, one might forget how pretty Wasikowska really is. She brings the same impassive calm she had in The Kids Are All Right and Alice in Wonderland, with emotional reserves that lurk just around corners.


Other Reviews:

Roger Ebert | A. O. Scott | Washington Post | Los Angeles Times | Wall Street Journal
David Denby | TIME | Slate | Salon | Village Voice | Movie Review Intelligence

Fukunaga seems to take Brontë at her word as far as the irritability and general undesirability of the character of Mr. Rochester, who employs Jane as a governess for a French girl who is his ward. Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) plays him with scruffy beard, sharp tongue, and general peevishness, so much so that one does wonder at times just what Jane sees in him. Of course, the dour would-be missionary St. John Rivers, played here with parsimonious expression by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott), proposes to Jane more as a business matter than one of love, so her choices are limited. It was wise to concentrate most of the servants at Thornfield Hall into the person of the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, played with matronly authority by Judi Dench. All of the production team deserves credit for a plush and authentic look to everything in this movie, from the costumes to the locations (all actually in Derbyshire) and interiors. It does bring to mind a certain absence in my movie-going life for a historical-film partnership like that of Merchant-Ivory, since the death of Ismail Merchant certainly but really going back to The Remains of the Day (1993) and, maybe, Surviving Picasso (1996) to find a film I really liked. Is there a career to be had in being the next Merchant-Ivory franchise? I don't know, but I know that I would watch more films like this one.

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