Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Love: Jane Eyre

There are several people who, if they read this, will probably laugh and consider me something of a hypocrite.  That's fine, I'll own up to it.  It's no great secret that I'm not the world's biggest Jane Eyre fan.  As novels of the time go, I'll take the sisters Brontë any day over any sort of dalliance with Jane Austen.  The Brontës, at least, had a flair for the gothic and a penchant for a bit of melodrama.  Books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights had a movement and the movement was haunted, the inherent romance more passionate and a little less calculated.  Manners, social standing, it's all still there, of course, it's just more fun when it's shaded a little darker.  Regardless, I've read Jane Eyre twice in my life so far.  Once of my own volition and the second time because, um, I was an English major and that kind of thing sort of happens.  That second time I wrote a fairly bitter paper I may have mentioned here before.  Bitter may not be the right word.  Let's call it snarky.  There was a lot of talk of bipolarism, a fair amount of compare contrast between Governess novels and 'chick lit', and an excessive section citing Virginia Woolf's criticisms of Charlotte Brontë from A Room of One's Own.  Yeah, I've still got the Word document, I've opened it now and am scanning a particularly pissy paragraph in which I outline the characters as a downward sloping hierarchy in which each character past Jane (from Mr. Rochester to Mrs. Reed) is nothing but a "less prominent malcontent." Color me amused by my own past work.  Ah, college.  With all that out of the way, allow me to state for the record: I may have my share of problems with the book, but goddamn I fell hard for this cinematic adaptation.
I'd long suspected that Charlotte Brontë's novel could lend itself beautifully to a properly executed film.  To be fair, there have already been quite a few.  Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt tried their hands at it in 1996, and I'm sure that was nice and all.  Long before that, even, Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine got gloomy on the moors in 1943.  Welles certainly emits the proper degree of pompous entitlement for our Byronic Mr. Rochester, and I'm sure it's all well and good.  While I admittedly have not seen the other versions (or, if I have, I was quite young and likely fell asleep), I have to admit that it seems like quite a task to one up director Cary Fukunaga's (whose previous work was Sin Nombre) dark, magnetic, brilliantly atmospheric rendering.  22-year old Mia Wasikowska steps into Jane's plain garments with no small amount of skill.  Ironically, while I'd found her ill-fitting and overgrown as the lead in last year's crash and burn Alice in Wonderland, here she seems a perfect match for the practical, quietly talented, restrained melancholy and escapism of our mousy governess.  The roles, it would seem, wouldn't call for too much of a difference; Alice merely gets to express, in temperament and fantasy, what Jane wishes she were allowed to.  Here though, she is restrained and burning: that desolate fairy locked in a lonely, isolated manor with a precocious foreign child, mysterious happenings, and one smoldering, predatory Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Her Jane is not quite the one of the novel, she is instead one that makes the story feel intimate and personal, inviting us in to experience this haunting alongside her.  The result changes the story, makes it feel immediate, fresh, and transcendent.  It's not the stodgy old text, it's not some tired old script with the dust blown off of it; it's a riveting, beautiful adventure.      
What Wasikowska manages on her own is only amplified in her scenes with Michael Fassbender.  In their pairing, the chemistry is undeniable and deftly portioned across the film.  The wordplay, existent in some form in the original, is here as bright as Hepburn and Tracy while never slipping into a context at all unbelievable.  The body language?  Out of control.  Like, seriously.  This is the sort of film romance that can make even the worst cynic (ahem, me) forgive the story's soapy conclusion, the match is unreal, and works to amplify each character as well as our sympathies.  Set amongst the dimly lit rooms, those foggy passages and bleak English gardens, there is real magic, an absolute spark that never cloys or panders to sentiment.  Fukunaga has found a way to make an overly familiar gothic love story between a homely young governess and an unpleasant enough bachelor into a surprisingly powerful, swiftly paced, positively dazzling film that's never tiresome, or slanted towards any audience in particular.  Moral of the story: if you think you're over Jane Eyre, think again.  This is a stunning adaptation that's as wildly successful in its storytelling as it is enjoyable to watch.  See it, and don't think of it as homework.

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