Dir. Cary Fukunaga. USA. 2007

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It is not uncommon to hear the phrase “plain Jane” referring to someone without striking good looks, but few are aware that the Jane in the phrase refers to Jane Eyre, the homely orphan girl in Charlotte Bronte's famous 1847 novel of the same name. In the novel, Jane survives a tormented childhood, learning to survive the indignities of a hateful aunt (Sally Hawkins) and a cruel charity school to become a compassionate adult who learns to believe in herself as a woman and gain her place in the world. Since I am probably one of the few people on the planet who has not read the novel or seen any of the 27 filmed versions, I could see Cary Fukanaga's (Sin Nombré) filmed version of Jane Eyre without any preconceptions, and it is a good one. 

The film opens with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) by herself in tears in an empty field in the middle of a fierce storm, her heart broken by the dishonesty of someone she held dear. From the next scene in which she finds a sanctuary in the home of Christian missionary St. John Rivers (Jaime Bell) with two sisters (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), Fukunaga flashes back to Jane's beginnings and how she reached that point in time. At ten-years of age, Jane (Amelia Clarkson) has much to overcome. Being called a liar by her aunt, her self-confidence is further damaged by the physical punishment she has to endure at a charity school run by fundamentalists. Her only companion is Helen (Freva Parks), a fragile child who stands up to the cruelty around her, but who dies of consumption, leaving Jane alone and friendless. 

In her teens, Jane becomes the governess of Adele (Romy Settbon Moore) at the Thornfield estate owned by Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) and his housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). Set in the remote moors of England's Yorkshire district, a country captured in all its stark moodiness by cinematographer Adriano Goldman, Fukanaga creates a feeling of dark unease in the huge mansion with its strange rattles and sounds, windows with bars, and wind eerily blowing through the chimney. Welcomed by Mrs. Fairfax, Jane's initial fears are partially allayed by the housekeeper's warmth, but her life becomes more difficult when she encounters Rochester on the country road in which she was walking, disheveled after falling from his horse. 

Though she is at first afraid of him because of his gruff manner, she is willing to reach out to him and look past the restrictions of their life stations, he a nobleman and she a commoner. Through fireside talks that are often intimate and witty, her awakening sexual feelings and his longing for companionship make them increasingly aware of their mutual needs. Slowly, their connection begins to emerge, even though the social differences between them are still an ever-present barrier. Jane, however, is able to overcome Rochester's often brooding and sullen nature to develop enough self-confidence to talk with him on a level of equality. 

After Rochester reveals a powerful secret that he has been withholding, Jane's world is shaken and the film shifts to the present, repeating the opening scene of a distraught young woman on the moor who negotiates a storm to find a home with the devout clergyman Rivers. The missionary wants more than a brother and sister relationship, however, and Jane is forced to make a difficult choice about the kind of life she wants to live. Though I had nothing to compare it with, I found Fukanaga's version of the romantic story of loss and redemption to be captivating, and the lead actors to be very convincing. 

I did feel something missing, however. Though Wasikowska captures the spirit of a spunky young woman, embodying the conflicting emotions of a young girl emerging into womanhood, I did not experience the inner sadness or depth that might have come from someone so totally rejected in her childhood and adolescence. Nevertheless, the film resonates with its powerful depiction of free will and class distinctions, delivering an important message about transcending limitations and being willing to find one's own way in life. 


Howard Schumann

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