They Know We Know How it Ends

Jane Eyre (2011): 7/10

Brandon Haffner

This new version of “Jayne Eyre” stumbles out of the gate and takes awhile to recover.  The opening frames follow Jayne alone on a cliff, crying in the rain with sappy music backgrounding.  We don’t know why she’s crying, so we feel nothing.  Every rainy second feels like an eternity.  Then she crawls into a house, soaking wet and out of sorts, where a man and two girls nurse her back to health.  She remembers her childhood with her ruthless aunt—ruthless to the point of caricature— and her time at a boarding school for misbehaving girls.

The school, too, is a cliche.  We’ve seen these hateful teachers a thousand times, those who take out their own numerous insecurities on their children with physical and emotional abuse.  The portrayal of these evil teachers is so flat and predictable, and so clearly intended as a device to boil our blood, it’s impossible to feel sadness when Jayne is abused, or when her only friend at the school falls ill, dies, and is coldly taken away by a staff person.

But when the plot catches up and we finish with this (probably largely needless) backstory, what remains is actually a fairly engaging blend of horror, romance, and wit. Jayne is played well by Mia Wasikowska, although in the film, she’s supposed to be unattractive.  They left themselves a challenge if you ask me:

The movie’s intrigue stems primarily from two key factors: the sharp dialogue (sometimes too sharp; I’ll get to that in a second) and the balanced, careful cinematography.  The camera plays a lot with light against dark, orange/yellow-toned frames against grey/blue-toned frames. The quiet, dim atmosphere of the school Jayne governs is very important in “Jayne Eyre.” Darkness is not always negative; in fact, Jayne seems to embrace the dark rooms, the associating cold, the intimate, lonely spots of candle light. Jayne and her intimidating employer, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), have some of their most fierce and revealing conversations in this environment.

On top of the building tension that rises from their complex relationship, there’s an underlying sense of dread in the film. In one scene, everyone in the house is awakened in the middle of the night from a fire in Mr. Rochester’s room. In another, Jayne hears voices and other sounds in the dark.  Eventually we learn the source of these spooky happenings. For those of us familiar with Jayne Eyre’s story, we are of course not surprised, but the movie does a nice job not spending too much time dwelling on the reveal. This movie isn’t about plot twists.  It’s about atmosphere, conversation, and intimacy.

Speaking of which, the movie does climb out of the hole it digs in the first half hour largely because of the smart, intense dialogue.  Some of the lines feel slightly over-the-top, but it’s the dialogue, as well was some incredible acting across the board (including a great performance from the reliable Judi Dench), that convinces us viewers that Mr. Rochester and Ms. Eyre are falling in love.  Neither of them come out and say it until well after we know it to be true.  That’s a sign of solid filmmaking.

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