2011 FOCUS FEATURES
d. Cary Fukunaga
Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre
Michael Fassbender as Rochchester
based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte
by Charlotte Bronte
Bantam Classics Edition
w/ introduction by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
What's the first rule of adopting a novel by the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen into a movie? NAIL..THE...LEADS. I would go so far as to say that a Bronte/Austen joint is only as good as the lead actors. By that token, Cary Fukunaga (d. of Sin Nombre 2009) really has a good jump out of the gate. For Jane Eyre he got Mia Wasikowsaka, who was an unfortunate victim in Tim Burton's uninspired Alice in Wonderland. Victimhood aside, you can see why Burton cast her as Alice and why Fukunaga would leap at the chance to make a 29th version of Jane Eyre: Wasikowsaka is that good. Likewise, Fassbender is an apt choice as Rochester, and their chemistry, is tangible.
I've seen critics refer to this version of Eyre as "gothic" but one shouldn't make that reference without mentioning that Bronte's work is steeped in the literary Gothicism of the late 18th and early 19th century. A most cursory review of the Bronte's biographical details coupled with the time period in which they were forming their writing style, should be sufficient to apprise even the most ignorant modern of the gothicism which is laced throughout the work of ALL the Bronte's.
Aside from that, Fukunaga handles the gothic aspect of Jane Eyre as well as can be expected in that he makes a cheesy, clunky back drop come to life through his camera lense. Jane Eyre is an enduring classic yes, but as a work of literature, it is far eclipsed by Bronte's last work, Villette. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, Villette in 1852 and to consider the stories back to back is to see the difference between a young writer trying to establish her place in the literary world by aping convention and a mature, successful writer trying to cement her literary legacy.
In Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, he does a great job with everything but the very plot devices which make this such an enduring tale. I.E. the ole crazy wife in the attic plot twist, which is not adequately foreshadowed or anticipated by his straight forward directorial style. For me, the heart of Jane Eyre is the way that Bronte takes this very Gothic/supernatural scene of the haunted castle and then ties it into the love story between Eyre and Rochester. In that way, the ole crazy lady in the attic is both the most "popular" event in the tale AND the most sophisticated literary device in the novel, and Fukunaga's failure to give a unique spin to that contrast is what prevents this Jane Eyre from being great. But it is good- and a great date movie.
After seeing the film I picked up a copy of Villette that my wife has owned since her college days. The Bantam Classics edition is no Oxford Worlds Classics series edition, but no matter. You don't need a PHD in 19th century British literature to grasp the appeal of a Bronte Sisters novel- psychological depth of character coupled with precise, realistic observation of scene and social interaction. In many ways, it's hard to believe that Villette was written in 1847, so attuned to psychology in a time before psychology was a discipline. (Freud was born nine years after Vilette was published, to give you an idea.)
I can truly say that the depth of field that Bronte brings to Villette far, far, far surpasses ANY of the 18th century novels I've read in the past two years. You can clearly see the evolution of the novel as an art form by the progress of psychological sophistication in the protagonist, and by that token, Charlotte Bronte and her sisters represented a real step forward. It's no wonder their work has proved so enduring over time.
Here is one thing I wanted to mention: Villette contains a thirty page sequence at the end where Lucy Snowe (main character) is dosed with morphine and instead of sedating her it has an energizing effect, and she basically wanders around time on a heroin high for forty pages. Not that kind of stuff prim stuff one would expect from a Bronte, and it made me all the more intrigued by the Bronte sisters. One wonders what experience inspired such a scene.