Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jane Eyre (2011 film)

(Originally posted on Facebook.)
This is the third Jane Eyre I've seen, and the only one that is a movie, not a serial. Watching this one reminds me why, all these years later, Jane Eyre is enjoying such popularity. You've got the independent heroine making her way in an unfriendly world, beset by moodily magnificent men who want to marry her, with a constant backdrop of windy moors and possibly haunted mansions. If that sounds silly, it's because Jane Eyre is silly. It's a silly melodrama and the romantic lead is frankly unbelievable and a man of low moral fibre.
It took Charlotte Bronte a lot of work to make Jane Eyre, in spite of itself, a great book. The problem with adapting it to film is that you've got to shoehorn some poor man into tight breeches and ask him not to look too silly saying Rochester's lines. (TIMOTHY DALTON: Am I handsome, Jane? JANE: Not at all, sir. VIEWERS: Oooo-kay).
This Jane Eyre also has to work hard to be a Serious Drama...but not too hard, because then it might lose the steampunk vampire romance novel crowd (and this movie certainly has an eye fixed on them). The result is something not entirely faithful to the book—but a superbly-made movie.
There were a lot of things to like about this particular Jane Eyre. Obviously the theatrical-film format had to result in a lot of material being left out and streamlined, but this is handled very well by opening the movie with Jane's flight from Rochester and then showing brief flashbacks to her childhood before diving more thoroughly into her time at Thornfield. This keeps the plot moving along nicely, although certain things get left out—they don't explain how Jane lost her valise and her time at Lowood is left very sketchy, with none of the gradual improvement that in the book eventually made it a less grim place, no kind Miss Temple, and no explanation that Jane became a teacher there.
The movie is perfectly sumptuous to look at. Neither of the main characters could really be called plain (although they did try with Jane). The costuming is wonderful. From a clothing point of view, it's all about the bonnet at the end. The picture up on the screen is really lovely: the camera drinks in as much picturesque scenery as it can, including a wonderful red sky at one point and a beautiful sepia shot with Jane silhouetted against a window. You could freeze-frame a number of shots and hang them on your wall with no questions asked.
In the book, Jane unexpectedly finds some living relatives with whom to share her life. People have pointed out how unlikely this is, and funnily enough the movie leaves that out altogether—the characters still show up, but this time Jane adopts them as relatives, rather than recognising them as truly her cousins. Cute move on the scriptwriters' part!
The acting is good, especially Rochester. This is the third Jane Eyre I have seen and it is the first in which I did not have the urge to laugh at him. Dalton, for instance, was hilarious, while I just felt sorry for Stephens in the 2006 miniseries. Here, scriptwriters and the actor conspire to produce a Mr Rochester you don't want to send to bed without dessert for being sulky. I was amazed—I couldn't believe it could be done. And the rest of the acting is just as good.
The script is likewise extremely good. It can be hard to tell without a copy of the book by your side, but if I am correct much of the dialogue was rewritten to speed up the pace or flesh out the characters. Normally this is somewhat obvious, but with only one or two missteps the scriptwriters have smoothed over seams in the story with authentic-sounding dialogue. There is a speech of Jane's, not entirely from the book, probably inserted to make her seem like a proto-feminist heroine; but because it is couched in the right language, I could almost imagine Jane really saying it:
I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man. It agitates me to pain that the skyline over there is ever our limit. I long sometimes for a power of vision that would overpass it. If I could behold all I imagine... I've never seen a city, never spoken with men and I fear my whole life will pass...
Other elements that have been invented and added include a speech given by little Adele on or near Jane's first day:
Sophie told me there is a woman who walks the halls of this house by night. I have never seen her, but people say she has hair black as ebony, white skin like the moon, and eyes like sapphires. She can also walk through walls. They say she comes to suck your blood. (slurp)
Yes, this is the up-to-date Jane Eyre, deftly modernised so that you would hardly notice it unless very familiar with the book. Just a touch more edgy. Just a touch more frightening and moody. And it works. It works. But is that a good thing?
Charlotte Bronte's book had something that made it worthwhile after all: a rock-solid moral foundation. In Jane Eyre there are good Christians, misguided Christians, and thorough-going hypocrites, but while the book castigiates hypocrisy and criticises denseness, it emphatically promotes true piety. It isn't perfect; Mr Rochester is too much of a cad and his repentance comes too late, after too much fun and games and burning passion (and houses) to make the book really positively edifying. However, in the book at least even Mr Rochester is required to deliver an edifying speech at the happy ending:
“Jane! you think me, I daresay, an irreligious dog: but my heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth just now. He sees not as man sees, but far clearer: judges not as man judges, but far more wisely. I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent flower—breathed guilt on its purity: the Omnipotent snatched it from me. I, in my stiff-necked rebellion, almost cursed the dispensation: instead of bending to the decree, I defied it. Divine justice pursued its course; disasters came thick on me: I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. His chastisements are mighty; and one smote me which has humbled me for ever. You know I was proud of my strength: but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness? Of late, Jane—only—only of late—I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were, but very sincere.”
I am sorry to say that none of this has ever made its way into any of the three Jane Eyre adaptations I've seen, including this one, which may be the least satisfactory, because the most abbreviated, of all. You see, unless Rochester repents, Jane actually doesn't gain anything from her flight. Everything may now become legal; but she is just a mistress with a ring, and Rochester is still a rank opportunist now taking advantage of the fact that Jane's morals now allow her to do what they forbade her doing before.
A lot of things were left out of this particular Jane Eyre: specifically, most of the moral fibre that drives Jane's actions-- “self-respect” is her stated reason for leaving Thornfield. Combined with the other things that are not explained—for example, the fact that Mr Borcklehurst of Lowood is shown up as the hypocrite he is and removed from office—the picture of Christianity in this Jane Eyre is sinister or anaemic. In the absence of true Christianity, Jane's religion appears to be some vague proto-hippie spiritualism—something not entirely absent in the novel, but firmly anchored there in context of the Faith.
To sum up, this Jane Eyre is quite a rarity—it's well-made, well-acted, entirely believable, beautifully-shot, deftly updated, and most enjoyable. It's all so well done, in fact, that it's hard to turn around and say, And yet wrong...I don't like it when people update stories, when strong feminine characters are given more feminist lines, when madwomen become, even in local legend, vampires. It's bad enough when it's jarring, but this new skill, this ability to mesh it in seamlessly with the original, seems worse. It doesn't belong in Jane Eyre, however well it is camouflaged.


Unknown said...

I watched the movie a couple of weeks ago ..... and found myself liking it in spite of myself, and perhaps my resolve not to ;). I read Jane Eyre for the first time about 6 years ago, and I have dug it out now, to read again. There is nothing like a movie to make you want to read the book!

Chris said...

Hmmmm . . . I watched this last month when it first came out on video. I can't say I liked it much. And I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Actually, I thought it quite downplayed any hip vampire creepiness . . . even what it could legitimately have had while still being faithful to the book. Like the tearing of the veil, etc. The crazy wife could (and should) have been made far more of a creepy and oppressive invisible presence.

And I totally agree with your assessment of the ending. Far too abbreviated, and we miss the change in Rochester. Without the conversion, we miss the point of the story.

Two things I enjoyed about this film. Some of the filming . . . though too often the picture seems to have been underexposed and adjusted in post, at the same time boosting the lowlight noise to annoying levels. And then the score by Dario Marianelli, also the composer for P&P. There is some great violin music there.

Anyway, I'd have to say overall a disappointment.

LeeSun said...

The "I wish a woman could have action in her life ..." is not taken verbatim from the book, but it's still fairly faithful. Most of the phrases and thoughts are taken from longer speeches that Jane makes in the book. For example, this one (which I've shortened in places):

“I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen--that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. … It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. … Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

Jane actually is a proto-feminist heroine, as portrayed by Charlotte Bronte, not dressed up that way by the film's producers.

And Mia W does an incredible job of capturing the whole grave, serious, fiercely proud and independent air that Jane is described as having in the book. Rarely smiling. Such a relief to see Jane after the BBC series which portrayed Jane as insipid and smiling and pandering all the time!!!!!! Yuck! :-)



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