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Over the last 101 years, there have been 22 film and television productions of Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre.' Not a decade has gone by that we've not seen at least one project, if not three, or even five (1910-1920). As long as we've had cinema, we've been treated to a long line of Eyres and Rochesters. Jane has been played by the likes of Joan Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Samantha Morton, while Rochester has been played by actors like Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Kevin McCarthy, Timothy Dalton and William Hurt.
Again and again, Jane Eyre has suffered at the hands of the Reeds, before falling for the irascible charms of Edward Rochester. It's a redundancy that proves Hollywood's current love affair with remakes is nothing new. But it also proves the worth of trial and error -- how after a century of treatments, leading talent and directorial eyes, a film finally managed to dig into the heart of Eyre, not as a romantic figure, but as a woman.
Unlike the works of Jane Austen, Jane Eyre's romance is almost secondary. Of course, for the legions of fans that have followed Brontë's novel over the years, it's the fiery pull of unconditional love that's been celebrated. But the author was careful to make the romantic quest one the consumes Eyre, but does not define her.
At its most basic roots, 'Jane Eyre' is the story of a woman who grew up in pain. She was orphaned, ridiculed and shunned by the family members who remained and then sent off to a terse school for forgotten children. Jane knew nothing of love, save one friend who quickly died, and one teacher who treated her kindly. She was only familiar with how to suck in her intelligence, truth and frustration and lead a stoic life. It was an existence so void of light that she didn't even dream or wish for anything more than what she'd already experienced.
Then she meets Rochester, a man immediately drawn to her sharp tongue and clever dialogue, and the pair try to overcome their personal obstacles to be together. It's not a union based on physical attraction, but the lure that comes from someone who understands and challenges you. "He had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man." Brontë's heroine and hero don't flirt; they banter and argue. And even when Jane allows herself to be swept up in possibility and love, it doesn't change who she is. She will not accept being lavished in luxuries; she has no interest in turning into some typical wife.
Yet these subtleties are few and far between in the cinematic treatments. One of the most famous is 1943's adaptation featuring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. Relying on the man behind 'Citizen Kane,' it's almost audacious in its treatment of the novel. The films shoots glimpses of the book's text, yet changes the words so that they fit the re-crafted material (penned by a variety of scribes including Aldous Huxley). Fontaine is not only beautiful for the plain Jane, but weak. Jane's resilience and uniqueness in the novel is stripped away from her cinematically. She cannot take the chiding of Rochester's snooty guests. When engaged, she thrills in the riches given to her, rather than requesting to be accepted as she is, "an easy mind, sir; not crowded by obligations. ... I will not be your English Celine Varens." And, most maddeningly, considers Gateshead her safe retreat -- to the point that they actually sugar-coat Aunt Reed, never letting the shrew have those chilling parting words.
In fact, this very reliance on the home of Jane's aunt is also used in the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli film. Instead of these cinematic Janes showing the conviction of Brontë's written character, facing starvation and destitution before building an entirely new life for herself, they flee to the home Jane hated, as if the scene of her most terrible memories is a place of solace or comfort. The 1996 film even makes Jane so wimpy that after being "pointed by old memories," she makes her "way back to Gateshead," a long carriage ride leading her to fall faint -- rather than days without food whilst traveling on foot. Oh, the woes of a racing, wobbly carriage ride.
Where is this woman?
Though Jane fares better in the miniseries treatments that endeavor to tell the whole story, the cinematic Jane Eyre falls victim to the heavy weight of period pieces, no creator really striving to show the undying relevance and modernity in the novel ... until Cary Fukunaga's 'Jane Eyre.'
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
Though influenced by the Welles version, and undeniably familiar with many of the incarnations, as specific scenes and shots would attest, the hum of Eyre's strength is no clearer than in the hands of Mia Wasikowska. "I must respect myself," she says. One might knock two beautiful people (once Michael Fassbender enters the picture as Rochester) playing two iconicly plain people, but as the only big diversion from the text, it's practically irrelevant.
In two hours, Fukunaga -- working from a script by Moira Buffini -- manages to tell all the important twists of the novel without short-changing any part. We see Jane's terrible upbringing, her first friend, her times at Thornfield Hall, finding family and ultimately, happiness. He doesn't make Jane weak, nor flighty, nor uber-serious. Wasikowska's Jane shows strength intermingled with a dry sense of humor. She's standoffish, yet warm, wise beyond her years. And it's that aspect that appeals to Rochester and makes age irrelevant. Wasikowska is young, but she can evoke the pain of life.
What's really remarkable, however, is how decidedly modern it feels, regardless of its period dress and Victorian set pieces. It's the anti-period piece, period piece -- but not through modernization. It seems timeless and modern because, ironically, of its commitment to the novel's subtleties. Fukunaga is not mesmerized by some suffocating adoration of tight corsets, so the meat of the work is what's on display -- the feminist strength, the chilling undercurrents.
And though it's all wrapped in a period package, it hits so distinctly on human truths, and evokes such modern concerns, that it's a film that transcends its genre. It's an evocation of the text, rather than a visual summary. Our Todd Gilchrist wrote: "in Cary Fukunaga's interpretation of the Charlotte Bronte classic, you can almost see the text exploding with energy as the actors bring it to life -- which is why even audiences disinclined to embrace period pictures or laborious literary adaptations will find themselves enchanted, even perhaps swooning in 'Jane Eyre.'"
It took a century to get to this point, and I imagine, can make even further strides in the future. Though beautiful, the film does have its flaws, most notable the palpably dimmed chemistry between Fassbender and Wasikowska, who are great at flirting, but not so much at evoking the intensity of finally realized passion. (Surely due to self-imposed walls in the actors.) Perhaps a future installment will get it all right.
Nevertheless, Fukunaga's version allows Jane Eyre to soar back to the heights Brontë crafted, in a way that could reinvigorate and inform future period pieces, if it finds success. And if we don't frequent the theaters to celebrate it, we should batten down the hatches for more period pieces that determine a woman's worth to be in the riches.
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