The Films of 2011: Jane Eyre

The new film of Jane Eyre
, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is quiet, understated, and finally dull.  Like its heroine, it prefers plainness to showiness, but unlike its heroine there’s no spirit or fire to be found behind the plain façade.  The cast here would seem to be very strong: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins.  The photography and Fukunaga’s direction are also sure-handed and graceful; there are images of sheer loveliness (a  shot of sunlight streaming through blossoming tree branches) that almost evoke Sofia Coppola’s films.  In these fleeting, “empty” moments, we suddenly feel that these people live in this world—that it’s not just another Classics Illustrated edition of a tired old book.  (Bronte’s novel, it should be noted, is not a tired old book—but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from watching the film.)  These flashes of life in the film are sadly too few.  The film’s attitude seems to be “we can’t linger over these throwaway moments—we have important scenes to get too!”  And so the importance scenes come crashing on, and feel anti-climactic and familiar.  Is this great novel doomed never to be able to inspire a film that can get out from under its own weight?  If the first act (Jane’s abusive childhood) is sheer Gothic pleasure, the story begins to feel slow and heavyish almost as soon as she gets to Thornfield—not a good sign.  The discovery of Rochester’s mad wife, one of the narrative’s major cruxes, becomes a plot point to be glossed and moved on from.  The indelible power of the story itself—its strong emotion, its moral ambiguity—is ultimately what’s locked up in this version of Jane Eyre, imprisoned by its own restraint.

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