Mar 12, 2011

Jane Eyre

For modern audiences this Victorian tale of romantic woe may be a little frustrating. So the guy is married to a crazy bitch? So what, Jane Eyre? Worst things have happened. Haven't you heard about the pursuit of happiness? Get a life!
In the age of Snooki and the Kardashians, we are very far from the oppressive condition of women in Charlotte Bronte's time, (just as the concept of concealed and repressed sexuality is alien to our age*), but what is eternally appealing about her fantastic yarn are the deeply archetypal, intricate layers to the story of deceptively plain Jane.

Jane Eyre's greatest tragedy is that she is an intelligent, talented woman (an artist!) trapped in a world that doesn't allow women the capacity to think. An orphan, a woman and poor, she is nobody, even if her greatest asset is her mind. In Victorian England, the social hierarchy was almost fetishistic (and a great source of wonderful literature). Love between members of different social classes was taboo (and it still is to an extent. To this day, the rich only marry the rich). Jane is a lowly servant, no matter how refined or educated. Even Mr. Rochester, her employer, has been shackled to misery by the conventions of marriage by money. So there's no chance in hell of love blooming. Taboo is of course, very sexy, so this is a very powerful hook.
Jane Eyre also is an impassioned protest against the established cruelties of the day. The everyday cruelty towards women, but also the cruelty born of the meanspirited "charity" of the clergy and the rich, both oozing contempt for the needy and the weak. 
Both Jane and Rochester are complex and difficult characters, with too much feeling and backstory underneath the straitjackets they need to bear. They are soulmates: endlessly frustrated by society's constraints, and each sporting their own horrid tale of woe. They both have fiery passions underneath which are not the solely the passions of the flesh, but more dangerously, of the spirit. And then there is the whole spooky, Gothic, haunted woman in the attic thread, which hints at the Victorian obsession with repressing the strongest instincts of the soul. What is a more obvious metaphor than madness dwelling in a hidden room in a dreary mansion? We are all vulnerable to madness. And if we lived in the Victorian era with its crazy-making rules, it could be hard to escape its clutches.

Jane Eyre is eternally hypnotic: it's a great, romantic story of love and cruelty and a passionate proto-feminist manifesto. This latest film incarnation alas, feels strangely airless. Many things are right. The mood is dark and gloomy, the costumes and decor feel authentic without calling too much attention to themselves. The music by Dario Marianelli is duly ravishing. The cinematography by Adriano Goldman is lovely. The rich and sparkling dialogues seem very faithful to the source. Everything is careful and correct. But, and I say this with great heaviness of heart, there is a lack of passion, a lack of madness, a lack of fire. Which is to say that, among other things, there is no chemistry between Jane (Mia Wasilowska) and Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Their individual characters feel too constrained, as if director Cary Fukunaga was afraid to let loose and risk going over the top.

A diabolical idea just crossed my mind. Imagine Alejandro González Iñárritu's version of Jane Eyre. He would surely err on the side of mega melodrama, and we could run the risk of getting a campy telenovela with billowing skirts, but it wouldn't lack emotion. The filmmakers of the present version seem to approach the characters and their Victorian environment as if they were looking at a rare and fragile specimen behind glass in the British Museum.
I adore this intelligent story of romantic upheaval so my heart did flutter in places and I enjoyed the movie, but I expected to be ravished. There is too much control for that in this film. Wasilowska is a perfectly good actress. Her eyes betray intelligence and feeling, but she seems too muted. After enduring a horrible childhood, she seems to bear not a hint of a subconscious grudge. Amelia Clarkson, the wondrous young actress who plays Jane as a child is far more alive and fiery. Wasilowska is very good in the scenes when she falls in love for the first time. You can almost feel her heart beating out of her corset, yet she retains her smarts (which is more than one can say about anybody in the throes of a major crush), but she is too obedient.
Rochester is not an easy role either. He is both an alpha male and deeply sensitive, imperious, and like most males, clueless about the female heart. Michael Fassbender seems a bit tentative. He's not doing anything wrong but there is something unconvincing. We all imagine our Janes and Rochesters through the prism of our own experiences. To me his Rochester lacks a tad of bitterness, of cynicism and of turmoil. And a whole lot of mystery. The rest of the cast seems to have been instructed to be as discreet as possible. And some scenes that would benefit from great dramatic flair are blunted either by good taste or lack of daring. For instance, when the existence of Bertha Mason is discovered, the camera focuses first on Jane's reaction. It would have been far more powerful for us to discover Bertha as Jane does, from her point of view.
Can't wait for the next version.

*This movie made me pine for the days when showing as much as a wrist would be considered foreplay. I'm not a prude, or maybe I am, but I do believe that what is suggested, forbidden and concealed is so much sexier than the literal and the explicit. And we live in a revoltingly explicit, vulgar age).

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