Sunday, April 3, 2011

JANE EYRE: The New One

Since Jane Eyre was one of those seminal books for me as a young girl (2.11.10), of course I went to see the newest version, starring MiaWasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbinder as Mr. Rochester, directed by Cary Fukunaga.

General overall comment: go see it if you are a fan of the book or the story.

Caveat: the screenplay by Moira Buffini moves like a house a-fire and has a more Gothic feeling than I think the novel embraces. Buffini includes sizable segments from the three parts of the book: Jane's life prior to coming to Thornfield Hall, her life at Thornfield/with Mr. Rochester, and her time with St. John Rivers (played by Jamie Bell), who actually gets a lot more time than his character warrants.

But everyone is here: Mrs. Reed and her nasty children, Mr. Brocklehurst and Helen Burns, and the crew at Thornfield. In fact, the most famous actor in the piece is Dame Judi Dench, who plays Mrs. Fairfax; Dench is of course spectacular as a working actress in her prime and graciously plays this small secondary role, mostly in scenes with the young Wasikowska.

My major arguments against this new version are personal. One, the screenplay, besides rocketing along so quickly there are none of Bronte's subtleties, also starts in an unlikely and ultimately flawed place: with Jane's rescue on the moor by St. John Rivers. Thus, while she "recovers" and starts to embrace her new life with the Rivers family, she flashes back to her childhood and time with Mr. Rochester, memories triggered by what feel like very cliched comments from the Rivers brother and sisters.

Jane is ogling the mutton-chops!
 And the book is very clear: St. John Rivers is a more typical "hero" than Rochester -- better looking, more selfless, more in keeping with a mainstream religious and political audience. he is the obvious choice, if you will, and the reader is meant to be surprised and affected by Jane's refusal to choose him rather than the problematic Rochester. Jamie Bell is unfortunately hampered by some mutton-chop whiskers that simply became more fascinating than his acting (yes, it's true) and kept him from in any way appearing heroic. No way was Jane even tempted -- which is all too clear.

Gothic Hero
Second objection: Fassbinder was handsome in a brooding sort of way, but did not have the humor or intelligence Rochester amply demonstrates in the novel. Jane doesn't fall for her employer's looks (that is made clear) but for the fact that his spirit, his character, his self is as stubborn, intelligent, quirky, and free-willed as her own. Fassbinder's Rochester is a weeper (oy, the sensitive Gothic hero!) and doesn't have nearly the right amount of self-aware arrogance the novel demonstrates. The Rochester here is more Harlequin Romance than Bronte, sadly. he's not bad, but in my opinion the best Rochester was Toby Stephens (2006 BBC-TV version).

Third objection: there is absolutely no time to breathe, to appreciate, the enjoy the story. It's a roller coaster ride. Which disappointed me, because the end result was more Danielle Steele than Charlotte Bronte: a romance where there is no need for pausing because the whole thing is so shallow that it is like eating whipped cream. No need to chew. Whereas, as I see it, Jane Eyre is actually more like a savory beef pot pie, thick with gravy and veg. Not solely romantic, but delightfully seasoned, filling, and, on a cold winter's night on the moors, something you're glad to linger over.

And Bronte's novel is, in fact, not solely a romance but a social critique, an indictment of class inequity, and a compelling portrait of an intelligent young woman who knows that because of her lack of fortune and pretty face, she has limited opportunities and yet she is a fierce, free, intelligent, compassionate being. It is about atonement and forgiveness, it is about paying for the mistakes of our youth, it is about love (and not merely romantic love, but filial love and deep friendship). it is about judging people by their appearance, and (in a very early form) an indictment of the social text that some people, because they are rich or beautiful, are superior to or more entitled than the poor, the ugly, the crippled in body or mind.

Jane sees the world very clearly, and while she understands that her perceptions are colored by her love, her envy, her fear, or her anger, she records for us her perceptions and her prejudices without being preachy or priggish.

The movie eliminates that in favor of Jane as romantic, helpless heroine, the little girl enamoured of and healing the damaged hero... except (spoiler alert!) he is never damaged as the novel requires in its hard justice. And the film ignores Bronte's sense of justice, which is hard and perhaps thus not comfortable to our pink-clouded romantic eyes.

This is the same kind of Hollywood mishandling that damaged the Pride and Prejudice of a few years ago: way too Gothic, was too emo to be true to Austen's sense of justice and independence... as well as the author's clear-eyed and harder sense of reality.

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