Roving thoughts and provocations

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Tame Jane

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, a film directed by Cary Fukunaga

The new film version of Jane Eyre isn’t all bad, but it’s all wrong. The story, despite a confusing flashback structure, is coherent. The dialogue is satisfying. The look is convincing. What’s lacking is Jane Eyre itself—Charlotte Brontë’s feverish inner world of anguish and fury. Instead, everything is pallid and sedate. Only the landscape projects some feeling: the director (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and the cinematographer (Adriano Goldman) are far more at home looking at moors than at people.

Some viewers find the classic 1944 version over-melodramatic: Joan Fontaine too beautiful for plain Jane, Orson Welles’s Rochester over the top with his flaring cape and piercing eyes and ultra-resonant voice. Well, he is over the top—but that’s true to the nature of Brontë’s imaginings. And if Fontaine is too classically beautiful, her perfectly chiseled features more Hollywood than Yorkshire, her screen presence has the right eager masochism for Jane—as it did for her two most triumphant earlier films, Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion. The black and white photography, all deep shadows and swirling mists, ups the windblown stakes, and we’re in a recognizable projection of what the novel feels like. Jane Eyre the novel is operatic; the new movie is what opera never should be: tame.

There have been many previous adaptations, including an early sound version from the “Poverty Row” Monogram studio, with the stolid and moribund Colin Clive as a bloodless Rochester and a too-handsome Virginia Bruce as a Jane with a Southern accent. Various television attempts have been livelier, though it would be hard to identify a more miscast Rochester than George C. Scott or a more irritating Jane than Susannah York in Delbert Mann’s 1970 version. But they all suffer from the same syndrome: Jane Eyre is too highly charged, too febrile, for the small screen, and for TV-type acting.

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre

And now it turns out that it’s also too highly charged, too febrile, for this latest large-screen attempt by Mr. Fukunaga and Moira Buffini, a not very experienced director and screenwriter who have no problem with pictorialization but shy away from high emotion. Can they be embarrassed by all that passion, all that lack of good taste? The acting is careful and small-scale. Michael (Inglourious Bastards) Fassbender’s Rochester is standardly handsome rather than rough-hewn, and he speaks well, but his performance is tender rather than threatening or even edgy; he’s a post-feminist lover. Jane is Mia Wasikowska, who was exceptionally moving in HBO’s In Treatment as a suicidal teenage gymnast, but whose portrayal of the young daughter in The Kids are All Right was no more than capable, and whose Alice in Tim Burton’s Wonderland was conventional and dull. (If you’re looking for real acting in that movie, don’t take your eyes off Johnny Depp’s wild and daring Hatter.)

Wasikowska is talented, certainly, but she’s yet to show that she can create a character; what she does instead is be herself: serious, sensitive, occasionally breaking out her lovely smile. She’s nowhere near intense enough for this iconic 19th-century emotional extravaganza that’s thrilled generations of young women (and men). As Jane she gamely goes through the paces, but no sparks fly—certainly not the crucial ones with Rochester. When their eyes first meet, they’re cautious and reflective. When Orson Welles’s glare meets Joan Fontaine’s instant surrender, stand back!

What we have here is the usual result when the movies take on a famous book with a singular voice. They hold on to the plot, the furnishings, even the language, but they lose the essence. It’s the problem with all the Vanity Fair adaptations—they give us Becky, they give us the Waterloo ball, but they can’t give us Thackeray’s sardonic vision of Vanity Fair. No filmed Moby Dick reflects Melville; no filmed Madame Bovary suggests Flaubert. The current True Grit is a sad case in point: it reproduces Charles Portis’s story—but ploddingly. The special charm of the book lies in the earnest, humorless voice of its girl heroine, and how do you convey that on film? The utterly affectless Hailee Steinfeld, playing Mattie Ross, hasn’t a clue. But the Coen brothers don’t have one either: their movie is about Jeff Bridges wearing an eye patch. (I feel particularly strongly about this one, maybe because I was the book’s editor.)

The great exception to the rule is Dickens. David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist have made terrific movies, and there are acceptable television adaptations, too. But as everyone has noted, Dickens was a cinematic writer; they only had to follow along, they didn’t have to reinvent. No, it’s likely to be second-rate novels that make good movies, ones with exciting stories and clearly etched characters but no particular vision of life, no unique authorial voice. These latter qualities are what books are for. Back to Charlotte Brontë.

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