Another decade, another version of a British literary classic. There must be something more to it than simply “a good story, done well”. The built in familiarity presumably almost guarantees a profit as long as you don’t throw robots into the middle of it or add “with zombies” to the title (just wait). The audience pre-exists, it knows the material and it wants to see it. A marketer’s dream in other words. So, here we go with the fifth (!) big screen version of Jane Eyre in the “talkie” era…….
It’s easy to see why cinema has returned to Ms. Eyre again and again, it’s……unusual. Romantic and gothic, it couldn’t be anymore repressed and angst filled if Mr. Rochester turned out to be a vampire and Jane changed her name to Bella and started to find dogs attractive. To be honest, Jane Eyre has always and probably always will beat the shit out of Twilight (even the version with Elle Macpherson) for bloody minded women and unknowable, handsome men.
We meet Jane running away, over a bleak and beautiful and thankfully Kate Bush-less Yorkshire moor, Thunder crackles in the background and the heather is shook by gusts of wind. Arriving bedraggled and distraught at a farmhouse she is rescued and begins to remember the decisions that brought her to this point. It’s a neat narrative trick, sliding the film skillfully into a kind of first person, like the novel. Every scene has Jane in it and nothing is remembered that she does not actively take part in (Saving Private Ryan should pay attention at this point).
We see Jane as a young girl, feeling her Aunt’s wrath and being sent to a particularly unpleasant school, we see her graduate and set off to take up a role of Governess at Thornlea house, where she will be teaching a young, French girl, daughter of Mr. Rochester. Now we take a breath. All the previous is shot over so quickly it’s borderline epileptic, characters jump in and out practically in the same frame as all the necessary information is imparted to at least give what follows the common decency of making sense. The director, who’s fault this must be, gives the impression of only being interested in the scenes between Jane and Mr. Rochester, everything else (including Dame Dench) feels fuzzy and unconstructed.
Not that Jane and Mr. Rochester aren’t watchable. The actors do a fine job, Wasikowska is perfect and just dowdy enough for Jane, her authentic accent doing her pragmatism justice whilst Fassbender smoulders and glowers as a man unable to acheive happiness but trying anyway. It’s just that there isn’t a much needed spark of sexual tension between them. This is a problem, the scenes between them are stretched out, the dialogue delivered with precision and a languid pace and without that chemical flash they drag. The love story pushes all the other parts of the novel into a corner. The chance for a good period of horror conventions comes and goes all too briefly, the secret revealed and abandoned unceremoniously. By the time we catch up with Jane’s recollections we barely have time to wrap it all up. the bow is tied as quickly as possible making the whole film seem rushed and most of all unbalanced. A sprint start, a sprint finish and a big slow marathon middle.
In the end Jane Eyre (2011) isn’t a bad version, in fact, it’s one of the best. It’s just, without wanting to get into a semantic debate about the definition of a film, without some of the fancy photography, this wouldn’t be out of place on a sunday evening television schedule. Up on the big screen it feels insubstantial and fractionally punching above it’s weight.