March 12, 2011

Jane Eyre (03/12/2011)

Although my high school and college transcripts are full of English classes, I somehow missed having to read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. My wife was assigned the novel once in high school, and liked it enough to re-read several times on her own over the years. She really liked this new film version too, which was directed by Sin Nobre's Cary Fukunaga and stars Mia Wasikowska as the lead, Michael Fassbender as the handsome dickhead she falls in love with, and features supporting roles from Judi Dench and Sally Hawkins, among others. Critics have also been on fire about it, and my Facebook buddy Jens actually saw the film twice in two days, remarking that he liked it even more the second time.

I must admit that I didn't get a lot out of it myself. I usually do have a soft spot for English costume-dramas based on novels of Jane Eyre's time, but in this case I wonder if a lack of familiarity with the text prevented me from seeing layers in the film that everyone else seems to. Because I have neither read the novel, nor have I seen it staged in different ways, I'm probably ill-equipped to really appreciate how the material was handled this time, and in fact at times I had a little trouble understanding what was going on at all.

I think a key problem for me was Wasikowska, whom I found to be awfully blank and difficult to get much feeling from, apart from a few climactic scenes. I understand that this is partly by design - Jane herself is described as exceedingly plain by several characters in film - but I, a Jane Eyre novice, went through large segments of the movie without a lot of insight into how she felt about everything that was going on, apart from feeling general empathy for a young woman that was forced to live with her mean-spirited aunt who did not want her, sent her to a boarding school where she was disliked, and who then became the governess at Thornfield Hall, a dusty estate owned by surly bastard Mr. Rochester, who harbors a dark secret or two.

The movie deviates from the book, I have been told, in that it shuffles up the chronology a bit. It opens with scenes of Jane running off from Thornfield Hall that appear about three-quarters of the way into the book, before flashing back to pick up the early scenes of Jane's childhood. I kinda hate this terribly clich├ęd technique to begin with, I must say, as I believe it appeals more to filmmakers when they talk amongst themselves than it does to the audiences who watch the movies. The idea, I guess, is to show the star of the film right up front (a chronological telling would mean that Wasikowska wouldn't show up for at least half an hour or so), and to tease at a big dramatic moment that the movie will be working toward.

With this movie in particular, I think the "stunt structure" had an unintended consequence that's actually a big problem: You see, when Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall later, she is to tutor a young blonde girl who mostly speaks French. Young Jane, in her flashbacks, is quite similar in appearance, and when the other girl showed up for the first time, I had a mild freak out moment: Had I been through all of the "Young Jane" scenes not understanding that it wasn't Young Jane at all but this other girl instead? The film was still flashing forward and backward at that point (ala ABC's Lost), meaning that it could very well have been the case, and I had somehow missed it. Or what if this was the older Jane Eyre meeting her younger self, and it marked the beginning of some kind of time-travel or alternate reality subplot that would be critically important to the movie's action / sci-fi climax? Was the space-time continuum about to collapse because of this paradoxical meeting? I asked my wife, and she quietly reassured me that I was right the first time: The French girl was a new character entirely, and film was not going to become a 19th century staging of Twelve Monkeys or Millennium.

Getting back to reality, however, it's hard to level criticism toward a movie that people seem to like simply because I "didn't read the book," but damn it: This blog is supposed to be about keeping it real, and writing about how I really feel about the flicks I'm seeing versus towing the same bullshit marketing lines that professional critics often do. What it comes down to is... did I understand it? Well, sorta. And did I like it? Egh, it was alright, I guess.

So there we are.

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