Well, this isn’t Satan’s Slave.
I have temporarily left my comfort zone of bad horror and zombie movies to examine the most recent retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Honestly, I can’t possibly imagine what came over me.
Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) has a crappy childhood, becomes a governess, and begins to fall in love with her employer, the rather grouchy Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). But their relationship might well be doomed, what with their different financial standings, social classes, and other love interests getting in the way. Oh, and the rumors of that pesky ghost haunting Thornfield Hall could be an issue too.
1. I am, by no means, a Jane Eyre expert. I feel that should be said up front. I have never read the novel, and the only other adaptation that I’ve seen is the four part BBC miniseries with Toby Stephens—which I liked.
Still, this particular adaptation seems fraught with problems, one of which is the almost total lack of chemistry between Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Almost all of their scenes together seem weirdly off, and not just like they seem to be an oddly matched couple or something, but like the two actors almost don’t appear to actually be speaking to one another within the same scene. The whole effect is so bizarre that Mek and I spent half the movie trying to figure out where exactly it went wrong.
Eventually, though, we did come to a conclusion, and it was troubling indeed:
2. Michael Fassbender is miscast.
Look, besides being infuriatingly handsome, Michael Fassbender is also a tremendously talented actor, and he almost always plays the most exciting or memorable character in any ensemble film (Inglourious Basterds, 300, X-Men: First Class, etc). He can bring passion like no one’s business, and he’s charismatic as hell. I was so sure going in that the actor’s smoldering intensity would have me fanning myself for dear life . . . and I don’t even usually like Byronic heroes. (Arrogance isn’t as attractive of a quality as some men might think.)
But Michael Fassbender, while talented, is also an exceptionally expressive actor, and reserve does not appear to come to him naturally. Much of his dialogue does not sound like natural dialogue. He actually sounds like he’s reading lines to Ms. Wasikowska, hence the disconnect in their scenes. Everything sounds stiff, sounds stilted and rehearsed . . . which is pretty much the exact opposite of everything I’ve ever seen Michael Fassbender do. And I think the problem is that he’s trying for a very specific type of broodiness, a sort of one-note, uncommunicative gloom that’s not nearly as fun to watch as you might think. It’s like trying to watch someone stoically mope. I mean, it’s fucking weird.
Mr. Rochester needs to be arrogant and broody, this much is true. But he can also have more than one facial expression, more than one inflection, more than one emotional response to every situation—and for most of the film, Fassbender just doesn’t seem to. I think he’s going for reserve, but it really just comes off as flat, and I’m not exactly sure who to blame for this—him or the director. Whoever made the call, I think it was a pretty poor decision, only emphasized by the one scene where Fassbender suddenly decides to ignore the last hour and a half of the film and go all out with the anguish and the passion. Cause yeah, that scene? Easily the best and most honest scene between him and Mia Wasikowska during the whole movie.
3. On the plus side, I think Mia Wasikowska is a very good Jane Eyre.
She’s quiet and withdrawn, but also clever and sharp. I like that you can see the spunky child that she used to be at odds with the meek, subservient woman that she’s been forced to become. Unlike Fassbender, Wasikowska never sounds like she’s just reading lines. The character seems to fit her skin perfectly, and I wish the whole adaptation had been more worthy of her talent.
4. Because there’s another problem with Jane Eyre that’s actually a bigger issue than an unconvincing Mr. Rochester—their romance is ridiculously rushed.
Look, maybe I’m biased because the only other adaptation I’ve ever seen is a four hour miniseries that has more time to allow the relationship to grow, but . . . no. No, to hell with that. This movie doesn’t just rush Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester’s romantic relationship—it rushes their friendship. Over and over again, the script reminds us that the unlikely two have become the bestest of buddies—except for the little insignificant detail in how they totally aren’t friends at all. Seriously, they have, like, two conversations onscreen and expect the audience to be, I don’t know, moved? You can’t just have Jane say something like, “No matter what happens, I’ll always be your friend” and make up for the character development that you haven’t bothered to show. (Clearly not a direct quote. Jane says it much more Englishly than that.)
5. And it certainly doesn’t help that the film never really manages to give a sense of time passing. If it weren’t for the dialogue, you’d think Jane Eyre arrived at Thornfield Hall on Monday, started tutoring Adele on Tuesday, and met Mr. Rochester on Wednesday. When Mr. Rochester informs
the audience Jane that she’s already been there three months before his arrival, I was like “. . . what?” The whole movie’s like that.
6. And more problems with balance: who decided on the zigzag-through-time narrative?
Like, okay . . . say Jane’s life is a story that runs chronologically from Point A (where she’s born) and Point Z (where she dies). The movie starts on Point K, where she’s an adult running away and looking appropriately tragic as she collapses on the giant rocks of England. She then meets Sinjin (Jamie Bell—and yes, it’s spelled St. John, but Sinjin is way more fun to type) and fever dreams her way back to Point C, where she’s a child living with her completely hateful aunt.
So, you think you’re going to watch Jane’s life story chronologically, from Point C all the way up to Point K, but after a few minutes of her depressing childhood, we go back to Point K again. And then back to Point C—or maybe now Point D: Boarding School of Doom.
So you’re thinking, okay, Jane’s going to tell the story more or less chronologically now, but occasionally go back to Point K, reminding us that she’s narrating this story from the future. (She’s not actually narrating, but you know what I mean. I hope. I’m finding it kind of difficult to describe this without actual clips.)
But after maybe thirty minutes of flashing back and forth from childhood to Sinjin, childhood to Sinjin, Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall (Point . . . F?) and we abruptly stop flashing back to Sinjin for the next hour or so of the movie. We only return to him when the story catches up to Point K—and then promptly moves past it.
And I guess it’s more of a pet peeve, but seriously? What the hell is up with that narrative structure? It seems decidedly unbalanced to me, and I can’t come up with a good reason for having it that way.
7. I’m also not loving what they do with Sinjin.
For the most part, I really like Jamie Bell here—I like Jamie Bell in most things—and frankly, he and Mia Wasikowska actually have better chemistry than she and Michael Fassbender have. I like that Sinjin is sort of the antithesis of everything that Rochester is—he’s not broody or emotional or even the least bit rude. He’s very proper, generous, religious, stern, logical . . . maybe too logical, when it comes right down to it.
Without going into too much detail—I don’t feel like writing a real spoiler section today—I think that, at one point in the story, they make Sinjin seem a little dickish to make Rochester look better in comparison. It’s what I call the ER model . . . where you have two guys (in the case of ER, Luka and Carter) who love the same girl (Abby) and take turns being complete assholes for a few episodes each, forcing you to immediately sympathize with whoever’s currently not being a sulky jerk. And it’s not like the two guys are usually sulky jerks—their behavior is completely out of character with the rest of their performance during the series. It’s a very frustrating way of drawing out a love triangle, if only because the solution is obvious to everyone who isn’t the girl: dump both guys and find someone who treats you right for more than half the time.
Anyway. This isn’t nearly as bad as that, of course, but I find Sinjin’s angry reaction to something that happens out of proportion and inconsistent with the rest of his character. I would think he’d just be more confused and maybe a bit condescending, sure, but not outright pissed. Other people might have different opinions on that, and I must admit: I don’t know how exactly he’s portrayed in the book. But this one moment kind of ruins the whole character for me. And I find that irritating because it’s one of the things I liked most about the Jane Eyre miniseries, how they handle the sorta love triangle.
8. There is one change with Sinjin that I did actually like, though. And while I won’t say exactly what it is (sure, the story’s only over 100 years old, but I was still pretty annoyed when Playing by Heart spoiled Citizen Kane for me, so you know, I try), it seems like a really smart deviation. Sorry, purists, but assuming you know what I’m referring to—isn’t it an exceptionally convenient plot development? Like, okay. Of course you just happened to do that. Uh-huh.
9. I should also point out that Jane Eyre is shot very nicely—because it is—but I’m not feeling as awed by that as I probably should. It’s a pretty movie, and that’s cool and all . . . but, you know, it’s a period piece set in England. I kind of expected it to be pretty, you know?
10. I’m not completely wild about the music (or lack thereof) in this film. There is some music, but a lot of the film seems awfully stark, and not in a good, quiet, period piece sort of way, but like in an unfinished sort of way. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me as much without Fassbender’s stiff delivery or the lousy pacing, but as is . . . the movie struck me as something that was at least one editing round away from being a finished project.
11. And I’m getting to nitpicky here . . . but I would love to see a film that really plays up the spooky elements of Jane Eyre. The spooky scenes here actually are kind of cool . . . but they don’t transition well with the rest of the movie, like it’s 90% melodrama, 10% ghost story . . . and no one bothered to link the two atmospheres together. As soon as said spooky scene is done, it’s like you forget the ghost story element even existed. I wish it could be a bit more cohesive, but admittedly, that’s more of a personal preference than a true critique of the film.
12. Finally, when in doubt . . . know that your movie can only be improved by the addition of Judi Dench.
She’s awesome, of course, And at least her character gets some resolution. That’s more than can be said for poor Adele, or Grace Poole. Jesus.
Mostly good acting—but Michael Fassbender is flat, as much as it pains me to say it. The rushed pacing kills what little chemistry the actors might have managed to scrounge up and makes for a fairly unbelievable romance. Not a horrible film, but certainly not a great one.
Listen to your heart. Or the wind. A man’s voice on the wind telling you what to do isn’t a sign of schizophrenia at all. It’s a sign of LOVE, dammit.
ALTERNATIVE MORAL . . . WITH SPOILERS
If you’re going to hide out your batshit crazy wife in your own house—the very same wife who likes to burn things whenever she possibly can—maybe you should use some of your vast wealth and hire at least two fucking caretakers that can take shifts keeping her from bouts of horrific arson. Dipshit.