Jane Eyre (2011)

Rated PG-13. Our Ratings: V-2 ;L -1; S/N –1. Running time: 2 hours

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or
boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its
own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not
rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things.
I Corinthians 13:4-7

Jane and Rochester.

2011Focus Features
Focus Features

Like a Jane Austin’s novel, Charlotte Bronte’s great work has inspired readers for generations, including numerous filmmakers. Indeed, up the street from the theater where I watched the newest version I came across at a Half-Price Bookstore a DVD of the 1934 version. This almost antique version starred the blond haired beauty Virginia Bruce as “plain Jane,” and so the newer version’s Mia Wasikowska is far closer to the girl whom Ms. Bronte describes as definitely not a beauty. (While a very pretty woman, Miss Wasikowska, with the help of the make-up department, manages to appear “plain.” ) The same can be said in regard to what some call the “classic version,” 1943’s adaptation starring the glamorous Joan Fontaine as Jane. Orson Welles portrayed Edward Rochester in a great performance that Michael Fassbender almost makes us forget in the current version. Lovers of the novel probably will prefer the various TV versions because a miniseries offers plenty of time to include details that a two-hour film must condense or leave out.

Director Cary Fukunaga, who gave us the wonderful film about two Guatamalans trying to make it to the US border Sine Nombre, begins in the middle of the story, rather than unfolding it in the novel’s chronological manner. The distraught Jane flees Thornfield Hall, with the bleakness of the drab heath matching her inner feelings. We see her in a long shot at a crossroads, but as no coach comes along, she trudges on, each step distancing herself further from the manor where her heart had been broken. Finally, amidst a drenching rain, she arrives and collapses that night at the cottage where the Rev. St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters take her in. By means of a series of flashbacks we are shown the orphan’s terrible childhood with her aunt and the boarding school run by a man and his assistants who in any really civilized nation would have been kept as far away from children as possible.

The rest of the oft-told story need not be repeated here. The two principles are excellent (Mia Wasikowska is 18 I have read, so the age difference between her and Michael Fassbender is more believable), and the casting of Judi Dench as the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax is inspired. Even in the scene in which she has no dialogue—she is on the staircase and observes below Jane and Rochester’s loving embrace—the expression on her face shows the mixture of disapproval (because Jane has crossed the social class line) and concern for the welfare of her young friend. The director’s eschewal of studio lighting for the natural light of candles gives the night scenes the proper gloomy effect, many of the scenes resembling a Rembrandt painting by their contrast between light and darkness.

Lovers of the gothic novel will find both of the film’s main characters appropriately suffused with undeserved suffering, suppressed emotions and sexual feelings, and courageous determination to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” For me, this condensed version makes me determined to see eventually the almost 4-hour 1983 BBC production. This is one of those great novels from which one does not want anything to be cut because of time constraints.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. This has been billed as the 28th version of the novel (counting the several that were filmed in the silent era): what ones have you seen? What is your favorite one, and why?

2. How does this novel share that of Jane Austin’s depiction of the custom of people not displaying their feelings? How does Jane misunderstand Rochester’s intention toward the other woman? Do you think this is because she devalues herself?

3. How also does the depiction of Jane follow the conventions of the gothic novel? Some have called Jane “mousy,” but is this fair? How does she show that there is steel in her character? How does she show her compassionate nature?

4. In fairy tales the poor heroine is often revealed near the end to be a lost child of noble or royal blood, and thus suitable for the prince. How is this device found in this story?

5. Some have observed that 19th century novelists have portrayed “man” as split or divided, badly in need of finding wholeness: how is this true of Edward Rochester, as revealed in his dark secret? How is his aborted attempt to marry Jane a failure to deal with his problem? And how was this complicated by his society’s strictures on marriage and divorce?