Thank you Charlotte Bronte for writing a book that has been rendered so many times and in so many ways, that I can weigh the versions as I am about to.
Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. I have read it a few times and it’s the sort of book that, while reading, I feel compelled to pause as I stumble across stunning sentences and exclaim about it to anyone in my vicinity. I may or may not want to read passages out loud to unsuspecting friends and family members. Over the phone, if necessary. It’s also one of those books that I have an occasional craving for, and that craving has recently been reinstated since watching both the 1996 (Zeffirelli) and the 2011 (Fukunaga) versions of Jane Eyre—both because each version has its own intriguing interpretation of this story I love, and because it reminds me of the things remaining that have not (or cannot) be translated to screen.
So as not to assume too much, a brief summary of the tale: Jane Eyre is a girl, cast off ungraciously by her relatives into a girl’s school. She is brought up under austere conditions and, at a tender age, takes a position as a governess for a young French girl in a large lonely manor. The master of this manor is the difficult and brooding Mr. Rochester (perhaps the very embodiment of the archetype) and the story is primarily about the fascinating interactions between the two—excepting a slight interlude which I shall refer to as “the St. Rivers part” during which Jane has fled the manor and Mr. Rochester and considers a different life.
The 2011 version starts at the above mentioned St. John Rivers house (in a-linear fashion) which—I must confess—is my least favorite part of the book. Frankly, I skip it every time I read Jane Eyre. Can I still call it one of my favorite books when I always skip several chapters of it? I don’t know. It’s probably a bad habit having been formed by reading it first as a teenager who simply had no interest in parts of the book that didn’t include interactions between Jane and Mr. Rochester.
I read many glowing reviews of this new version, which encouraged me, because I was suspicious of the two principle actors being rather too pretty and handsome for the respective roles of Jane and Mr. Rochester. Neither are supposed to be physically attractive—except to each other of course. Both, however, must be fascinating.
Sufficed to say that, while I wanted to love this movie, I came in with suspicions. And during the first few scenes I found many of them confirmed. The scene with Jane fleeing in the rain and stumbling all over herself seemed a little melodramatic to me. I actually half-liked St. John Rivers, which I never have, and I was still a little distraught over Jane’s appearance.
THE VARIOUS JANES
I’m normally not one to notice hair and clothes. I’m a dunce with such things. But for some reason the exact tint of Mia Wasikowska’s hair in the 2011 rendition of Jane Eyre bothered me. For all I know it’s the actress’ natural hair-color, but it was distracting at first. It didn’t help that I’ve always pictured Jane as dark haired, and this precise color of dull bronze seemed half-bizarre. In any case, the filmmakers did their very best to make Wasikowska look un-beautiful, when she is, of course, beautiful. She has young, dainty features. But I'll admit she did look almost homely every now and then.
Here is an example of her looking not at all homely:
And here is an example of her 1996 film counterpart, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg:
I should say right now that, by the end of the film, I was very much sold on Mia Wasikowska as Jane. However I should also point out that there is something singular about Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre. Gainsbourg has a very strange, atypical beauty that almost doesn’t seem like beauty at all, except in flashing instances. She’ll stun you with the personality behind those unusual features if you’re not prepared: this precisely fits the “unearthly” description used by Rochester in one the most classic lines of the original text ("You — you strange — you almost unearthly thing!")
She has an unusual jaw-line and a distractingly strange set of the mouth and you can see why Rochester would call her an imp, an elf, or something otherwise belonging to dusk and ‘the other.’
In this recent version, however, you get much more the sense of Jane’s youth and inexperience (Wasikowska is very young) and of how incredibly vulnerable she is simply by virtue of her age, gender and station in life. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Jane looked quite mature, whereas Wasikowska looks young in general and truly—in some scenes—like a mere child.
When Rochester just up and leaves without a word, you can see how confused and crest-fallen she is. It highlights how temporary his warmth towards her just might be (even if that turns out not to be the case, she has good cause to be wary) and also how barred she is into her current circumstances. He comes and goes. She stays. She can’t make him stay and she can’t go gallivanting after him either.
THE YOUNG JANES
I do still prefer the 1996 version for the “Young Jane” portion of the story, which features Anna Paquin.
Anna Paquin looked like a spirited, clever—potentially difficult—child. She had a right sharp fire to her, which you could envision being tempered with maturity. The young actress of the 2011 version does a very good job at what is asked of her. Nevertheless, I sense that, had she not been the undeniable victim at every bend and turn, her Jane would have come off as genuinely bratty. She even looks a bit like what I have generally imagined the mean sisters to look like. Perhaps this is not unintentional. Perhaps they mean to say in this that Jane, had she not struggled as she did—not been down-trodden as she was—she might well have employed her natural bluntness and strength by being a very precocious brat. Just a thought. Not an interpretation that would have occurred to me.
STORY AND EXECUTION
The cinematography is ceaselessly gorgeous and the dialogue in this 2011 version is excellent, and well in keeping with the tone of the book, to include gently spoken lines such as the following:
(St. John Rivers) “What will you do with all your fine accomplishments?”
(Jane) “I will save them till they are wanted. They will keep”
And with that early line, Wasikowska’s Jane endeared herself to me.
Another marked difference between this version and the 1996 one is that the relationship between Adele (the young French student) and Jane is rather sweeter and fuller in this one than in the other. I can’t quite say why. It’s less stifled, I suppose. In the ’96 version the relationship between the titular governess and her pupil is very perfunctory and I liked that they gave it a bit more life in this one.
The meeting scene between Rochester and Jane never seems to change from version to version. I suppose there are only so many ways to contrive for a woman and man of that era and stratum in society to come within touching distance at first meeting, and helping a man who has fallen from his horse is probably a very effective one, so there’s no need to deviate there.
Also, the moment when I became truly confident in Wasikowska’s blonde, delicate, pale Jane was a dark-roomed scene in which Rochester accuses her of being an imp or an elf. And she says:
“Sadly they are all gone. Your land is neither wild nor savage enough for them.”
And poor old Ms. Fairfax, the housekeeper, is bewildered by the half-eeire tone of the conversation between the governess and the master. As though they instantaneously had a vernacular all their own for one another.
There’s trouble here. Michael Fassbender plays Mr. Rochester in this most recent rendition and he is far too handsome for it. He portrays Rochester marvelously, and I doubt anyone is going to complain much of his handsomeness…it’s just not accurate is all. He’s quite as gruff and mean as he ought to be, but the actor’s undiminished good-looks made the scene in which Jane says that she does not find him handsome rather silly…whereas in the book it is well established that he is, indeed, not a handsome man and her stating so was an example of her brazen frankness.
He is compelling regardless, and does say some very ungracious things about Adelle and Ms. Fairfax. He also does the occasionally unlikely thing of helping out his gardeners. I like the idea that Rochester would go about working and hacking at roots with his hired hands…but I find it unrealistic (I need to re-read the book and see if there are any hints to that effect).
Furthermore, the scene following Jane’s rescue of Mr. Rochester from the fire is not to be described. It is too perfect for it. Lord have mercy on my fire-lit soul. If I can entice anyone into watching this by saying this is the best scene, but by refusing to give any particulars, than that is what I must do.
IN ADDITION TO THAT....
I liked that this version showed periods of gentle affection, not moving from grand drama to grand drama without pausing for breath. It gives some glimpses of normalcy before the next big thing.
However the film sometimes mistakes its viewers for die-hard fans. Since the director fiddled with the time-line, by putting the last third of the book at the beginning and interspersing the beginning of the book throughout that, I can’t help but wonder if this might confuse someone unfamiliar with the story. I strongly suspect it might.
On the other hand, the cold-hearted religious dialogue used to drive home Jane’s childhood misfortunes seemed ever-so-slightly over-played as though the audience was not aware of the era or setting...and this brings me to the role of God and religion in this film: it was scant and askew.
This was a beautiful movie based off of a beautiful book but it did what so many story-tellers do these days: give remarkable strength to the character without acknowledging the source of that strength lest God come suddenly and compellingly into the picture. In the book, God is more than mentioned. He is pondered, debated, sought…and sustaining. He was misused or misperceived by the villains (the head of Lowood school and faintly by St. John Rivers) but also loved and trusted in by the heroines.
In the movie God is restricted mostly to the mouths of the villains. Positive scenes—such as when Helen talks of heaven—are allowed only because they are vague and occur in childhood. And Jane’s utterance of “God help me” towards the end was made to seem more a wild exclamation than an actual plea for God’s help. What this ultimately means is that Charlotte Bronte, a woman of the 1800’s—steeped in religion—had more courage and even-handedness in portraying both the blaring truth and the villainous misuse of religion than a modern movie-maker. Bronte understood that one doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath-water—which is something current filmmakers too often do when it comes to classic works that have God and the Bible flowing sure and lively in the veins of the story. When they extract God, or try to neutralize his relevance in the text, they often make the story go rather pale.
Take this quote from the book:
"Worn out with this torture of thought, I rose to my knees. Night was come, and her planets were risen: a safe, still night; too serene for the companionship of fear. We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us; and it is in the unclouded night-sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence."
I just want it known where strong, unearthly, Jane got her convictions. The movie neglects it and—despite my many praises for the film—I was glad to be reminded of what was absent.
Therefore, I loved this movie, and I LOVE the book it came from.
At the end, the way Rochester looks out with his unseeing eyes is stunning, coupled with an equally rich last line: