Jane Eyre (2011): High Points, But Little Else

 

As I don't follow the movie industry, seeing a preview of a new Jane Eyre movie in early 2011 gave me an unexpected thrill. So what if I hadn't heard of the cast members (other than Judi Dench, familiar as James Bond's movie boss in recent years)? Many lines spoken in the preview were right from Brontë, and the film snippets looked sumptuous.

 

My spouse, who prefers modern Oprah-type novels to quaint British morality tales, generously offered to see the movie with me. So we found ourselves driving more than half an hour, to an upscale town's art-house theater, to take in this production that hadn't reached our local multiplexes.

 

 

This was my first adult viewing of a Jane Eyre film treatment, many years after I'd first read the book. I found the notion so enthralling that I created this website and began watching and reviewing other Jane Eyre movies.

 

A year later, having explored eight others, I watched the 2011 film again, to revise my review in light of all I'd seen since then. Here is the revamped version.

 

The movie has a shocking beginning. Instead of Mrs. Reed's cruel Gateshead estate, we find ourselves on the rain-lashed moors around Thornfield, watching Jane make a desperate escape before collapsing at the Rivers house.

 

Flashbacks are a new and unwelcome addition to the Jane Eyre movie canon. Fortunately, while these out-of-order scenes are distracting, the time sequence isn't hard to follow, due to the obvious changes in Jane's age. (Amelia Clarkson portrays Jane as a child wonderfully, her eyes reflecting a mixture of injustice, lost innocence, and a defiant spirit.)

 

Bouncing around the time continuum, we see Jane tormented by John Reed, scorned by his mother, and thrust into the figurative hands of the Reverend Brocklehurst. Brief samples of her Lowood experience zip past — the punishment stool, the stoically dying Helen Burns — and all too soon, pupils are saying goodbye to their grown-up teacher, Miss Eyre.

 

Rather than offer a further blow-by-blow account, I want to discuss the movie's broad strengths and (especially) weaknesses.

 

It's impossible to retell the Jane Eyre story fully in a two-hour film. Charlotte Brontë wrote a long book for good reason: the many landscapes she portrays, both physical and emotional, present a rich context in which the main story can take root. Every detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is another brush stroke providing depth to the overall masterwork. (Her rich language is also a key to Jane Eyre's success. In this film, while the actors occasionally deliver small clumps of Brontë's original words, much of the dialogue is new.)

 

The movie hits the plot's "high points," but it is like the Cliff's Notes version of a classic. Without the book's sustained buildups, characters' actions and emotions often appear shallow and unconvincing. For example, Jane seems to fall for Rochester abruptly, as any naive young woman might, since he is the first man with whom she ever really converses. As they face each other after she extinguishes his bed fire, a kiss seems impending, the first clear sign of their attraction. Missing are the countless thoughts, longings, self-criticisms, and inner debates Jane had during those times. (Another drastically shortened and unsatisfying element is the single encounter with the mad Mrs. Rochester; we don't see her tear Jane's veil, and in her attic prison scene, she looks sullen and irritated rather than violently deranged.)

 

Besides the truncated scenes and plot developments, many parts are excised entirely. We miss most of Brontë's depictions of relations among social classes: Reverend Brocklehurst's family visiting Lowood; Rochester's affair with Adele's mother; the Misses Reed choosing contrasting life paths; Blanche Ingram's real designs upon Rochester; Jane's treatment by villagers before she reaches the Rivers family; etc. More than a love story, Jane Eyre was also an incisive critique of that era's British society.

 

Other missing parts of the story include the Lowood "burnt porridge" scene, the Riverses' relation to John Eyre, and the interval between St. John's revelation of his India plans and his demand that Jane marry him. The story gets along fine without those bits, which were probably taken out to shorten the running time. For that same reason, perhaps, some scenes are choppily edited, as if transitions between parts of a scene had been cut out long after being filmed.

 

For me, the "cruelest cut of all" comes at the drastically slashed Jane-Rochester reunion scene. No plotting with the servants to surprise him (Jane finds him alone after encountering Mrs. Fairfax in the ruins of Thornfield); no teasing him about her marriage proposal from St. John Rivers; no mention of how the two had "heard" each other's spirits calling across many miles. Not even a hint at the final happy events: their marriage(!), Rochester regaining some eyesight, and the birth of their son. The movie's finale, with Jane nuzzling up to the blind Rochester, may satisfy viewers unfamiliar with the book, but it strikes me as a cheap and hackneyed conclusion.

 

The movie's other main shortcoming is its inability to get inside Jane's head, where nearly the entire book takes place. Her thoughts, her reactions to events happy and sad, her passionate inner dialogues — these are the meat of Jane Eyre. The filmmakers avoided voice-overs, the best mechanism for conveying thoughts. With voice-overs, it would have been a different movie, and they could only have included slivers of her thinking anyway. Without them, though, the tale lacks flavor and depth.

 

I don't want to criticize people for failing at an impossible task, nor do I mean to imply this movie was poorly made. It is visually ravishing, with sets and costumes conveying a wonderful sense of that era, including many dim, atmospheric, candle-lit scenes. (Interesting note: according to an interview with director Cary Fukunuga at movie blog FlickeringMyth.com, the building used as Thornfield Hall in 2011 was also used in the 1996 and 2006 versions, and possibly one other!)

 

Furthermore, Mia Wasikowska is a pleasure to watch as Jane, although her thick accent [similar to the Beatles'] comes and goes. Michael Fassbender doesn't hold up his end; he is a subdued, matter-of-fact Rochester, closer in feeling to 2006's Toby Stephens than to 1943's Orson Welles. He lacks Rochester's burly physicality and menacing mien, acting restrained even when powerful events strike him. Among the supporting cast, Mrs. Reed and Reverend Brocklehurst are similarly low on the passion meter, but Adele is pleasingly believable, and Judi Dench steals every scene in which Mrs. Fairfax appears.

 

The movie clocks in at two hours; many current films are a bit longer. I wish this one would have come in at, say, 2:15. The extra time could have been well spent as follows:

  • five extra minutes of Jane-Rochester conversations (more gradually building their mutual interest and attraction) 
  • a couple of minutes of Bertha visiting Jane's room at night and rending her veil 
  • a few minutes of Jane being scorned by villagers before she reaches the Rivers house (showing she didn't just stumble immediately onto a sympathetic family) 
  • five minutes to expand and continue the final scene (including references to their marriage, his returning eyesight, and their son) 

Those modest additions could have made this a far more complete and satisfying version of Jane Eyre.

 

My take-home message is simply that while this movie is a diverting spectacle, worthy of being viewed, its lack of depth makes it a mere shadow of the spectacular artistry in the book Jane Eyre.

 

 

Summary

 

STRENGTHS

  • Fine acting by the main character and some supporting actors 
  • Beautiful sets, scenery, and cinematography 

WEAKNESSES

  • Lack of buildup makes the mutual Jane-Rochester attraction unrealistic 
  • Relatively colorless portrayal of Rochester
  • Omission of secondary but still valuable scenes dulls Brontë's social critique 
  • Bertha Mason's presence is minimized
  • Failure to tie up storylines in final scene