March 13, 2011

MOVIES: Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011)

First things first: I'm going to assume that I don't need to worry about spoilers for a movie based on a book that's more than 150 years old and a staple of high school/college literature classes.

And Fukunaga's version does stay fairlly close to Charlotte Bronte's story, though it shuffles a few things out of sequence, beginning with Jane's arrival at the Rivers home and telling the earlier parts of the story in flashback. That fidelity to Bronte, though, is one of the movie's problems.

By modern standards, the amount of torment that life dumps on Jane is absurdly melodramatic. I was summarizing the story last night for a friend who'd somehow never read the book, and even before I got around to Rochester, he thought I must surely be making this up. The first act -- Jane's childhood -- comes across as particularly overdone here. The abusive aunt (Sally Hawkins, on whom evil does not sit comfortably), the terrible boarding school, the cruel headmaster who forbids the other children to speak to Jane, the death of the one friend Jane does make (from consumption, which is here depicted as a mild cough) -- it provokes nothing so strongly as giggles.

Another problem the movie faces -- and this may be inherent to any attempt to tell this story in Hollywood, where one must have beauty at all cost -- is its insistence that Jane and Rochester are, as they are in Bronte, ugly ducklings. When you've got the very pretty Mia Wasikowska and the strikingly handsome Michael Fassbender playing the roles, you really can't get away with Rochester's famous line to Jane, "You are no more pretty than I am handsome."

The biggest problem, though, is that there's very little romantic chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender, and each is such an unlikable character that it's hard to imagine why either would be drawn to the other. She's a rude, insulting woman who (by the standards of her society) doesn't know her place; he's an arrogant, condescending jerk who looks down his nose at Jane before abruptly (and unconvincingly) declaring his love for her.

There are some nice supporting performances to be found here. Jamie Bell is appropriately prim and tightly wound as St. John Rivers, and Judi Dench is delightful as Mrs. Fairfax, giving the movie some much-needed jolts of warmth and wit. And Adriano Goldman's cinematography is lovely, particularly in the scenes of Jane running wildly across the countryside after leaving Thornhill.

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