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Non-Review Review: Jane Eyre

This latest in the long line of Jane Eyre adaptations stands quite well among them. My better half, whom I readily defer to in matters of culture (if not, sadly, also taste), assures my that it represents a relatively faithful and incredibly thorough exploration of the classic gothic romance, condensed down into a relatively short two-hour-and-ten-minute film. It really is a well-made film, produced with genuine skill and class from everybody on board, and I’d go so far as to suggest that the few problems I had with it stemmed directly from its source material.

Love is in the Eyre...

Though the film’s greatest success may be in taking a rather impressive and intimidating piece of prose and managing to cover all the essential items in relatively little time, without ever seeming dull or purely functional, I think that the reason I enjoyed it so much was the passion brough to the screen by those involved. I’d argue the film’s principal success is in creating a palpable gothic atmosphere. The best scenes in the film drip with a wonderfully gothic style, whether it’s young Jane hearing voices on the wind (or footsteps in the landing), or thunder and rain serving as a damning omen for a young couple engaged, or even just the fog in the woods as Jane makes her way to the post office.

All of these scenes, and more, are fantastically handled. Director Cary Fukunga brings a slightly ethereal style to the movie, hinting at an other-worldliness to it all, without pushing the film too far into the realm of hyper-stylised productions. Everything on film looks (and, more importantly, feels) real, but with enough darkness and gloom to hint that thinks are far from what they appear. The film’s production design – especially around Rochester’s mansion, which looks both stately and macabre – is wonderful, but we expect no less from the BBC working on a period production.

Affairs of estate...

Charlotte Brontë’s book is one that has provoked all manner of interesting feminist critique, with its lead character both praised and damned for her responses to the way society (and the men in her life) may treat her. The film captures this remarkably well, and Mia Wasikowska gives an absolutely wonderful performance as Jane. Wasikowska has had a string of strong roles of late, and I sincerely hope that this leading one can propel her to some well-deserved attention.

Similarly impressive is Michael Fassbender as Rochester, an individual who is very clearly damaged in some strange and surreal manner. The male leads in these sorts of romances are often very difficult to play – I’m not sure why, but I suspect it’s the values dissonance between the original publication date and the modern world. After all, this is a story where Jane’s true love speaks readily of possessing her, and treats her as an unwitting pawn, while being subject to all manner of fickle mood swings and rude behaviour (“abrupt and changeful,”as Jane charitably puts it).

A flowering romance...

It takes a very rare leading man to pull that off – Colin Firth is perhaps the best example of an actor with the necessary qualities to make such an outdated character seem complex and sympathetic, without rendering the character a historical curiosity or reducing him to a bland stereotype. To be frank, Fassbender has that sort of skill. Again, like Wasikowska, he’s an actor who has demonstrated formidable range. While I wouldn’t call this his best role, it is a nice showcase for the actor’s talents.

However, I can’t help but wonder if the movie’s fidelity to its source material represents its greatest weakness. I enjoyed it, and it’s a wonderful piece of gothic romance, a genre you see at the multiplexes all too rarely these days, but it does go on a bit. There are some clever structuring techniques used at the start, with Jane’s childhood intercut against her time in the present with a modest family, and these serve to keep various threads going at the same time, without disengaging the viewer from any of them. Then there’s a wonderful flashback that eats up the second act, showing us how Jane got to where we started.

True to the letter?

The problem is that, by the time we get out of this flashback, it seems like the movie should be ending. Instead, we get a strange third act that admittedly makes sense and fits thematically with what came before, but features a bunch of characters we haven’t seen nor heard of in over an hour. All of which leads to an epilogue that ties back to the middle of the story, which makes the intervening twenty minutes (and the prologue it ties back to) all feel a bit strange. It’s a strange structure that reflects a lot of way that books like this were written. I’ll confess haven’t read Jane Eyre, but the film’s structure is similar to those of Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights – with an introduction, an extended flashback, and an awkward jump forward in time with stories-within-stories. Such a technique works well in books, but I’ve never felt it translated well to film.

I also have some issues with the plotting of the story, with the rather ridiculously convenient “hitherto unknown rich relative” subplot that suddenly gives Jane a whole load of money and class out of nowhere. I know that virtually every movie plot out there requires suspension of disbelief, and it’s strange what stretches that suspension to breaking point, but I found that element of the story just a bit contrived. That said, I think the movie does get a pass, given the age of the source material, for playing a variation on the cliché “speak now or foever hold his peace”bit.

There's a mist-ery on the Rochester estate...

Still, it’s a matter of personal preference, and I suspect a lot of the fans of the original novel will be thrilled that the story mirrors the original text so closely, covering a lot of ground that might have been ignored in a film of similar length. I enjoyed the movie, it’s a very well made adaptation produced with great skill and care. It’s a movie well worth a look, if you get a chance – and doubly so if you are a fan of these sorts of gothic stories. However, I can’t help but feel that the movie so perfectly captured the creepy atmosphere of the Rochester Estate that it was a shame to leave its halls.

It’s an enjoyable period drama, perhaps the finest costume drama of the past year, and it’s a credit to all involved. It is – without a shadow of a doubt – a superb Brontë adaptation (something I’m hearing a lot of people saying, and one that reflects my own limited experiences), but it feels like it’s “only” a very good film. That said, there are a lot of things worse than being a very good film.

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6 Responses

  1. I think it’s Fukunaga’s involvement that really makes this stand out; going from Sin Nombre to this is kind of a big leap in terms of subject matter.

    Not that seeing Fassbender and Wasikowska together isn’t enticing, of course.

    • Yep, it’s a superbly-made adaptation, and I think it’s the quality of the people involved that makes the difference.

  2. Oh no. I just wrote a really lengthy comment (I had been waiting for this film for ages) and being the bright spark that I am, I accidentally deleted it.
    The conclusion was that I enjoyed it apart from one or two small things. I’ll try and rewrite my comment when it’s not midnight and I’m less comment despondent :)

  3. This is a very nice movie. It show very detailed and clearly how modest and well-education Jane Eyre was, and how hard and difficult situations she has to overcome. But I think that the book is better than this movie. Since the narrator of the book is Jane herself, we can see what she sees and what she feels in the story, but she is a kind of dry in the movie. However, in the movie she seems more educated, since they show the details of her lessons with that French little girl.

    • I haven’t read the book, I must confess, although I did enjoy the film. But my better half quite like the book and approved wholeheartedly of the film.

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