not in our stars, but in ourselves
Believe it or not, reader, it took me two whole years to see the most recent (?) film adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011). The book is one of my favorites, and Michael Fassbender is another favorite, so why did it take me so long? I don’t know. But it took until today, and all I can say is this: OH MY GOD WHY DID I WAIT SUCH A VERY LONG TIME. I can’t say it’s a great film. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the holy hell out of it, and don’t worry I’ll turn in my cinesnob badge on my way out.
I hope you all know the basics of the story, but just for the sake of completeness: Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska as an adult, Amelia Clarkson as a child) is a spirited young woman living in England in the 1840s. Her formative years were what I think we could reasonably call traumatic. Her parents died when she was very young, and she was sent to live with her cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins). Mrs. Reed lavishly dotes on her rotten son, and punishes poor little Jane no matter what she does. After Jane strikes back at her sadistic cousin, Mrs. Reed sends her to the cold and unforgiving Lowood School. Despite making friends with only one girl while she’s there, a girl who dies of consumption or some such; despite being singled out for humiliation; despite having no family in which she can take solace; she grows up to be a confident and accomplished young lady. She sets out for Thornfield to work as a governess to a young French charge of the mysterious Edward Rochester (Fassbender). He is intrigued by Jane, and she by Rochester, and they fall in love.
But alas! This is a Romantic, more than purely romantic, story; and so of course there are some pretty major obstacles to their happy union. If you don’t know what they are, and if you don’t know how it all ends, I’m going to have to order you to repeat the tenth grade.
It is actually extremely rare to see a film adaptation of a well-known and -loved classic of English literature that satisfies. This is one of those rarities. Although the 500-or-so-page novel is telescoped to two hours precisely, it doesn’t skimp; more importantly, at least to nerds like me, it doesn’t change anything just for the hell of it. Literature and film are two very different things. You can’t just do a literal transcription of the former to the latter. But it is so refreshing to see a movie that leaves the best parts of the book intact! This speech, for example, which Jane makes to Rochester when she thinks he’s about to marry someone else:
Am I a machine without feelings? Do you think that because I am poor, plain, obscure, and little that I am soulless and heartless? I have as much soul as you and full as much heart! And if God had possessed me with beauty and wealth, I could make it as hard for you to leave me as I to leave you… I’m not speaking to you through mortal flesh. It is my spirit that addresses your spirit, as it passes through the grave and stood at God’s feet equal. As we are.
It may not be the precise arrangement of the speech in the book – but it’s close, and the spirit is all there. Let me repeat: this is a rare feat indeed. Jane Eyre the novel was obviously treated with a great deal of love and affection in this adaptation, and that goes a very long way with me.
Wasikowska is ideally cast. She is lovely, let’s not pretend otherwise. But she is a much quieter, much more realistic kind of lovely than the usual film actress. She is intelligent and alert, passionate and steadfast, just the way Jane should be. It’s not hard to see why Rochester soon begins to fall in love with her.
And Rochester. Oh my god. The one major departure from the book is that, in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane refers repeatedly to his not being terribly handsome. Here, we have Fassbender, whose soulful eyes and elegant figure leave this viewer, at least, in a dead swoon. He is suitably gruff and rude, when necessary; and then he is lovely and tender, and I just melt. That is exactly the reaction I have when I read the book, too, so this film does just what it ought to do. Jane is the narrator of the novel, and she is in love with Rochester, and so we experience that love along with her. The film doesn’t have a narrator as such, but Fukunaga has successfully made the film’s consciousness (to get phenomenological on you) Jane’s, and so we love Rochester just as she does. Well, I do, anyway. Jane Eyre has always been the work that gives hope to the physically unexceptional among us, and the movie upholds that tradition very well indeed.