Monday, April 4, 2011

Plain Jane Reigns

Today I've got a special treat for you. Once again I'm teaming up with my good friend Steve, whose Stevereads blog can be found on the web magazine Open Letters Monthly. Once more we share a topic, as he delves into the literary classic by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, while I tackle in my own way the 2011 film adaptation that is already setting some film attendance records around the country. I honestly don't recall reading Jane Eyre in high school. I remember that we had to read it for English class, but much of the required reading from that time has faded somewhat into background static for me; if it wasn't Shakespeare, I didn't much care for it, and this particular Bronte book stuck less with me than most. It's odd to think of it this way, for when I first saw this film's trailers a few months ago, my first thought was: "Why didn't the book seem this AWESOME when I first read it??" Getting me suitably intrigued, I was then forced to wait weeks after the film's official release for it to make its way to my favored theater. I was certainly excited, but for all I knew the trailers may have been apart from the story's true narrative, and fears of being bored to tears by a traditional period piece were not unheard in my mind.
 The film opens with namesake Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) sneaking out of Thornfield Hall with her meager belongings and running for the hills. Before the wild elements can cause her to perish alone, she is taken in by a kind young holy man, St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. Recovering her strength, we are soon told the fascinating tale of Jane's past, from a neglected and abusive childhood at the hands of her wicked step-family to an equally traumatic education at a penny-pinching boarding house, to her employment at Thornfield Hall and the irregular romance the rather plain Jane shares with the master of the house, the sullen and eccentric Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
One of the first things I noticed watching this film was something I was certain would never happen: there's not one iota of voice-over narrative anywhere in this film. There is the occasional line of dialogue that overlaps scenes, but not once is Bronte's descriptive word spoken out loud so that the audience can easily follow along with the film's tale. By removing this potentially distracting staple of modern film, director Cary Fukunaga risked losing his audience in the mix and forces them to focus on every detail they are presented with, making this latest rendition of Jane Eyre a show for the true thinking viewer. The dialogue is smart enough and the characters complex enough to make sure you can't just sit back and turn off your brain; the patron who invests himself in this title will surely be rewarded with a richer understanding and appreciation for the narrative they just witnessed.

And what an outstanding narrative it is! Love, lies, betrayal, and mystery are ever-present in this tale, one much darker than most classic period pieces. Fukunaga, who had only directed the Spanish-language film Sin Nombre before tackling this project, has a great eye for detail, and has the ability to instill the bleak and heavy atmosphere where most would fail to tread. This results in Jane Eyre being fundamentally different not only from the countless prior adaptations but also makes for a much more groundbreaking film than one would initially think. Fukanaga's supposed inexperience is nowhere to be seen here, and its almost scary to think that he might have out-directed most of his more renowned predecessors when it comes to adapting this Bronte classic. Though it does feel as if some story elements were left out (and since I'm not Steve, I wouldn't know where to seek them), it doesn't detract at all from the film's composure.

The acting here is top of the line, and a mix of obvious choices and curious talents littering the mix. Mia Wasikowska proves that her 2010 breakthrough performances in the films Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right were no flukes with her commanding portrayal of the titular heroine. Wasikowska shows a variety of sides in this character, and Eyre might end up being her signature role when all is said and done. Michael Fassbender is another rising star; his parts in films like Inglourious Basterds and Centurion roaming enough to make him not an obvious choice for this classic role. He makes it his own however, and you can't deny his multitude of talents. The only real question is how he hasn't been noticed by now, as his lead role is his best yet. It's almost a shame he'll be slumming it up this summer in X-Men First Class, but as long as he's able to get those roles he should be able to sign on for any script he wants. For the safe casting decisions, Jamie Bell is good in the relatively small role of secondary love interest, though it's too bad that it doesn't live up to his abilities. He probably could have done so much more with his acting talents, given the chance. Judi Dench also has a minor part as Mrs Fairfax, Thornton Hall's housekeeper; it's a tiny part, and she goes above and beyond in making it hers. It almost doesn't matter who fills these roles, as most of the film is either just Wasikowska, or Wasikowska and Fassbender together. I do have to give some kudos to Amelia Clarkson, who played Jane as a young girl in the early scenes. She was such a treat that I was almost sad when Wasikowska took over the role full-time. Like much of the rest of the movie, the cast comes together perfectly, and made the entire experience the best it could be.

It seems impossible to say it, but Fukanaga might have created the greatest film version of Jane Eyre of all time. There are a few dull bits, especially early on when the plot is still growing and things haven't yet reached their apex. Some of the dialogue is a bit too mouthy, and though most people can follow the general gist of the conversation, some sentences will doubtlessly end with audience members scratching their heads. But these are mere nitpicks. Jane Eyre easily matched my expectations and threw a few curves for good measure. For that it becomes 2011's new #3 film, and certainly encourages me to pick up this literary classic and re-read it for the first time in nearly fifteen years. But don't worry, I won't be taking notes on that event; writing about books is Steve's job, and you won't find me encroaching on his territory anytime soon.

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