Thursday, April 7, 2011

Thoughts on Jane

As soon as I saw the trailers for Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, I knew it was going to be one of my most anticipated films of early 2011. I'm traditionally a lover of classic literature and period pieces, but in the last five to ten years, I've grown weary of the traditional approach to the classics on film. I need my classics to be infused with a modern sensibility, and Jane Eyre seemed like it was going to do just that.

In the last couple days, however, I realized that Jane Eyre's theatrical run was getting a bit long in the tooth -- it came out nearly four weeks ago now -- and I still hadn't carved out an occasion to see it. There was a chance it wouldn't survive the cut this Friday, so I knew I had to schedule a rare Tuesday night trip out to the movies. Which is just what I did.

I have a bunch of short thoughts about the movie, and per the Audient style, some of them relate directly to the film and its content, while others are merely whimsical and tangential. In sum total they do not equal a review of Jane Eyre per se, but that shouldn't surprise you, since reviewing is what I do professionally, not what I typically do in this space. But because the thoughts are generally unrelated to one another, I've decided to break them up as little section headings. Because, you know, that kind of thing is fun.

Forthwith (getting in the classic spirit with that word):

Excess shock

One of the earliest things I noticed in the film was the comical physical reactions the woman next to me was having to everything that happened.

There's a scene from Jane's childhood where her awful cousin (I believe it's her cousin) is searching for her in order to get a book back, all the while brandishing a large sword. Although he has no real plans to use the sword, he does end up slapping Jane in the face with the book, so hard that her head hits the wall, drawing blood. Fukunaga shoots it very convincingly, so it looks like young Amelia Clarkson (more on Amelia later) actually bled for her work, despite being all of 12 years old.

The woman next to me clamped her hands to her mouth in shock at this occurrence. That wasn't so surprising, but it was surprising that she left her hands clamped there for the next two to three minutes, so stunned by the incident that the horror was leaving her body only in a slow trickle. And just when she ventured to let them returned to her side, they leapt up to her face again upon Jane pounding on a door where she'd been imprisoned, and hitting it so violently that she fell to the floor. I thought she might get up and leave right then -- not because the movie shouldn't be showing such things, but because she couldn't grasp the fact that the world could ever contain such horrors.

She mostly calmed down after that, though there was the incident where she went to cover her ears when one of Jane's classmates at her boarding school is about to be whipped in the neck by a switch.

Impossibly handsome

In case you think I can praise only the physical attributes of women (here, here), I want to tell you that I spent this entire film thinking that Michael Fassbender is impossibly handsome.

I should say, I thought that when I first watched him in Inglourious Basterds, and I was reminded again last night. (I was not reminded so much in Jonah Hex, where his character's face is covered in tattoos.)

When I first laid eyes on Fassbender, I thought he looked like Ewan McGregor. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who was reminded of the erstwhile Obi Wan Kenobi, but I actually haven't heard too many others talk about it. Last night, however, I decided that the comparison is imperfect, because McGregor has never been this stunningly handsome. Fassbender's good looks are damn near imposing, which I think is fitting for the character of Edward Fairfax Rochester.

Mia Wasikowska, while attractive in her own right, is likewise the perfect Jane. Jane Eyre is supposed to be -- or at least perceive herself as -- a plain-looking girl. The interesting thing about Wasikowska as an actress is that she manages to harness both attributes in one person -- beautiful when she wants to be, plain when she wants to be. It's that she has "real person good looks," which means it isn't very hard to push her either toward plain or toward beautiful, depending on what you do with her. It's this very realism that's probably got so many producers interested in casting her these days.

Wait ... I
haven't seen her before?

Speaking of first laying eyes on people, I knew that last night was not the first time I'd laid eyes on Amelia Clarkson, who plays (quite well) the young Jane. In fact, I nearly drove myself to distraction over the next couple minutes, trying to figure out where I knew her. Something I'd seen recently, I was sure.

Yet when I looked her up on IMDB, her only other credit was something called The Sarah Jane Adventures, a TV show in which she makes appearances in two episodes. This flummoxed me to no end.

Well, just as I was writing this, I've figured it out. Clarkson is almost a dead ringer for Liesel Matthews, who played the lead in the 1995 movie A Little Princess (directed by Alfonso Cuaron). I only just saw this for the first time about two months ago. Here, judge for yourself, with Clarkson on the left and Matthews on the right:

Unfamiliar to me

I just made a joking status update on Facebook (let's see if people get it) that I couldn't believe it had taken this long for them to make a movie version of Jane Eyre. In fact, IMDB displays 22 different results when you search the words "Jane" and "Eyre."

Strangely, this was the first one I'd seen. Not only that, I never read the book. So I carried not a single preconceived notion into a Jane Eyre released at the late date of March 2011.

I consider it strange that I'd had no prior exposure to Jane Eyre precisely because I was an English major in college, and took an entire class devoted to the Victorian novel. We read Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Dickens' Dombey and Son and a terrific unheralded novel by George Gissing called New Grub Street, but not Jane Eyre. (Nor Pride and Prejudice, for that matter). It's such a pillar of the literature of that era that I always considered myself the worse for never having read it ... maybe I need to put it on the schedule.

And so it was that I was unfamiliar with a number of the plot elements of Jane Eyre, elements most people probably know like the back of their hand. I was most surprised to learn that Rochester had a crazy wife he kept locked up in the attic. Who knew?

Not quite far enough

Although I really liked this version of Jane Eyre -- it was expertly made in every way you could want -- I have to say that it ended up not quite doing everything I wanted it to do. While I was pleased with it, I wasn't as pleased as I could have been.

One of the things that intrigued me most about the Jane Eyre trailers was how Fukunaga seemed to be positioning it as some kind of gothic horror. Certain elements of that choice are certainly reflected here. There are a number of effective startle scares, as well as a couple mildly supernatural happenings, just enough to create atmosphere. For example, in that scene I discussed earlier where Jane is locked up after the incident with her cousin (I forgot to mention that she jumps on top of him and starts beating the shit out of him), a poof of chimney dusts shoots out of the chimney like some kind of spirit. We're meant to think of this as Jane's imagination, rather than something really happening, and it works quite well.

Simply put, I wanted more of that. Oh, I know this isn't Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, though I do understand they're making a movie of that. But if you're going to start with the horror undercurrent, see it through to the end. Fukunaga didn't quite, letting it go slack somewhere around the middle. Which isn't to say that the second half of Jane Eyre is not totally engrossing and terrifically made -- I've already said it was. The acting in the film is a special treat. I guess I just thought it came to resemble a more conventional staging of Jane Eyre -- or so I'm told, since I haven't seen any others myself -- as the movie wore on.

Which just means the movie inevitably couldn't live up to the excitement level the trailers produced in me.

Then again, when can they?

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