‘Jane Eyre’ haunts and succeeds

In theaters Friday: 50/50, Dream House, What’s Your Number?

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I had a secret in high school: I kind of liked Jane Eyre. After Pride and Prejudice bored me to tears—I’ve since made peace with Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy after enduring the six-hour BBC miniseries with my wife, though Mrs. Bennett can still shut her trap—I had pretty much written off any novels about familial drama and the lovelorn ladies-in-waiting and landed gentry of 19th century England. Who needs it?

But at 15 or 16 or so, Charlotte Bronte’s novel surprised me. I found Jane Eyre to be relentlessly dark, even spooky, a haunted piece of work that must have been scandalous when it was first published in the buttoned-up Victorian age. It reminded me more of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow than anything Jane Austen had penned.

It was no surprise then that the first trailer for the cinematic adaptation of Jane Eyre felt like a Gothic horror film. Directed by Cary Fukunaga, known chiefly for his moving immigration drama Sin Nombre, this Jane Eyre stars up-and-coming actress Mia Wasikowska in the title role, and the equally escalating property Michael Fassbender as her brooding boss, Mr. Rochester. These are two tortured souls, each with heavy crosses on their backs, who fate brings together. But that doesn’t mean their courtship is easy.

As a lead character, Jane is a tortured orphan-turned-governess and goes through hell, but to the credit of Bronte and Fukunaga, she never comes off like a damsel in distress. The strength of her moral compass is matched only by that of her backbone. As with other notable works of the 19th century, a certain level of dues ex machina is to be expected and, in most cases, accepted as a pillar necessary of the form.

Wasikowska is incredible in her restraint before exploding in her few spotlight scenes of outpoured emotional angst. Fassbender is all mystery and wounded warrior heart, brave but too shadowy to be a knight in shining armor. The cinematography by Adriano Goldman (City of Men) is spectacular. He has a great eye for silhouette and shadow, and he finds a palette alternately blanched and blushed to show paradise an desolation as uncomfortable neighbors in the English countryside. Vast wide panoramas shrink homes to the size of dollhouses on the plains making their inhabitants feel helplessly miniscule against the immense cruelty of world.

And that is Jane Eyre, a moral, Godly young woman struggling not with her unshakable faith but with her purpose in the face of such devastation, such reckless chaos and irony. The next time you’re in the mood for a character driven period piece, but want to skip the eye-rolling romanticism, pick up Jane Eyre, just don’t expect the sun to shine.

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