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A couple of years ago, I was stunned by a young director’s first feature.  Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s Sin Nombre {2009} was a breathtaking, bitter slice of life; spotlighting the crashing worlds of an immigrant family and a Mexican gang member, each desperate to change their lives for the better.  Amidst the brutality of the circumstances, Fukunaga presented a deft and beautifully photographed narrative that made its rawness almost lyrical.  Fascinating as that movie was, hearing the director had taken on a new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s best known novel was a surprise.  Happily, Fukunaga’s demonstrated grasp of a lovely scene and poetic storytelling is a wonderful compliment to Brontë’s prose, while his ability to cut keenly through veils of purple that have smothered this story in previous versions serves to create one of the most mesmerising, relevant retells yet seen.

Bettering ones lot is as relevant for Jane Eyre as it was for the characters in Sin Nombre.  As an orphaned child, Jane finds herself at the mercy of relatives who begrudge the very air that she breathes and ship her off to the cruelest boarding school they can find at the first sign of Jane’s intelligence and strong will.  After a harsh matriculation that includes the death of a dear friend, Jane is sent into the world to make of herself the best she can, landing a seemingly lucrative position as a governess to the ward of a wealthy man.  Her arrival at the gloomy estate brings new life to the place and all is well until the master himself arrives. 

Jaded and acerbic, Mr. Rochester is a moody bugger who simultaneously enjoys and is aggravated by the tension he creates at Thornfield.  Having literally run into Rochester before in a somewhat less decorous circumstance -- nearly crippling him after an encounter on the moors -- Jane is marginally less disturbed in her employer’s presence and a contentious rapport develops between the two that blooms into something more.  Can Jane believe this fairy-tale she’s in; the lord of a prosperous manor willing do the unthinkable and cross class lines to make her his?  It seems too good to be true.  Yes, it does.

With verdant locations swathed in the mists of the English countryside, Fukunaga immerses his viewer in the Gothic mood of the novel; the sense of modesty and social constrictions of the age soon follow.  The look of the film is flawless and Fukunaga frames his scenes beautifully.  Odd jumps in the film’s timing, flashing forward and back to different points in Jane’s story and a strangely rushed ending disjoint the pacing somewhat, but doesn’t derail it.  

Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska is our young Jane and it was a wise choice to cast an actor close to the age of the character as written.  It’s the natural hopefulness of youth that makes Jane capable of believing that anything is possible and any obstacle to the path of true love can be overcome.  Jane is invested with a strong will and self-possession that hints just enough of a post-modern feminism; an independence that sets her apart from other girls and may very well be the thing that attracts the thorny Rochester. 

Michael Fassbender is all smoulder and spark as the bored aristocrat with a big secret and a lax attitude toward marriage laws.  As is Jane in her circumstance, Rochester is looking for a way out of his own purgatory, posh as it may be and sees the bright young girl as his key.  Fassbender is electric, making Rochester far more appealing than his literal counterpart.  He does for well-cut breeches what Colin Firth did for white shirts and water in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice.  My only other hedge in all this is that young Wasikowska, who does admirably in all other instances, can’t quite hold her own in romantic scenes with Fassbender.  One never gets the feeling that she’s nearly as taken with Rochester as one might reckon for a girl of her tender years, or as the audience is sure to be.  She doesn’t quite know what to do with her face and it often reads strangely blank in the middle of impassioned scenes.  Fassbender’s got enough charisma for two and so it works out in the end.  

Judi Dench radiates warmth as Mrs. Fairfax; the housekeeper lived long at Thornfield and privy to the skeletons in the manor’s closets, even the ones with flesh still on them.  Seeing the house filled with life again through the presence of little Adèle and her governess Jane pleases her, but she’s wise enough to know it can’t last.  Jamie Bell has a nice turn as a country parson who aids Jane in a time of need, and despite his formal, tweedy manner, the very proper vicar makes a good run for Jane’s affections.

It takes a keen hand to make a movie from a book that’s possibly the most adapted in history seem alive and worth retelling yet again.  Director Fukunaga makes his Jane Eyre one to remember through the lush beauty of his film and the fresh, vibrant performances he induces from his actors.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 10th, 2011

 

Click here for our review of director Cary Fukunaga's 2009 feature debut, Sin Nombre

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Focus Features)

 

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