Sunday, September 11, 2011

Boyfriend Material

For all its supposed innovation, the most successful moment of the new big-screen treatment of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, is strikingly reminiscent of a moment in David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist. Taking place at the very start of this re-structured version of the classic story, the arresting sequence in which Jane Eyre frantically flees her home of Thornfield Hall and wanders despairingly on the moors culminates in our defeated heroine being taken in by kindly clergyman St John Rivers and his dutiful sisters. As she rests and recuperates, she begins thinking back on the events that led her to be wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Although this is a clever and novel way to present this much-told tale, the film's insistence on jumping back and forth from Jane's memories of her unhappy childhood to her time living at the Rivers cottage soon becomes irritating. Things only settle down when Jane, now eighteen, travels to take up the position of governess at the aforementioned Thornfield Hall. That is rather a sign of things to come as this handsome yet patchy adaptation over-emphasises Jane's relationship with the brooding owner of Thornfield Mr Rochester at the expense of Charlotte Bronte's proto-feminist theme of a young woman striving to assert her independence in a restrictive society. Jane's relationship with Rochester is of course a very important part of her journey but it should not be the be all and the end all.

The story of Jane Eyre has aged so well largely because of its attractive central character whose determination, self-possession and resilience in the face of extraordinary adversity are as appealing now as they were in 1847 if not more so. Unfortunately, as romance blossoms between servant and master during a series of fireside conversations, this Jane Eyre behaves passively and obediently. She does not impress Rochester with her depth of understanding and compassion during their discussion of how her young French pupil Adele came to be his ward because this discussion does not take place. She does not take it upon herself to investigate the mysterious goings-on at Thornfield and draw her own conclusions because that Gothic element is sidelined and the character of Grace Poole, who lays at the heart of the mystery, appears only fleetingly. The scene in which Jane temporarily leaves Thornfield and comes face to face with her cruel aunt Mrs Reed years after she abandoned the girl to her fate at a sinister charitable school is a very significant moment for our heroine. Here, it is treated in a frustratingly perfunctory manner as though it is of little importance besides setting up a later plot revelation. Consequently, this Jane Eyre is difficult to sympathise with.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the promising young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska struggles in the role of Jane. Although she looks right, she comes across as petulant and whiny particularly in the scenes in which Jane is asserting herself. Michael Fassbender fares much better as Rochester but both portrayals suffer from an unfortunate tendency to drift from Received Pronunciation to a broad Yorkshire accent often in the same scene. The best performances come from the supporting cast of Jamie Bell as St John Rivers, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Reed and particularly Judi Dench as jittery Thornfield housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, who is by turns funny and touching and also somewhat compensates for the film's complete lack of atmosphere by conveying a distinct sense of unease. There is great chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender, vital for a film that increasingly treats the sequences in which Jane and Rochester are not on screen together as a waste of time. This treatment of Jane Eyre is undoubtedly passionate but falls short in many others areas. Reader, she marries him but she doesn't do all that much else!

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