Film Reviews: Three Jane Eyres

One thing I realized about movies and adaptations in general while watching the Jane Eyres: casting is crucial, it is what location is to real estate.  A gothic, chilling atmosphere is important too in a Jane Eyre adaptation, but in the end it always came down to the actors.

Brief summary of the plot of Jane Eyre:

Jane Eyre is a young orphan who lives with her rich aunt.  Her aunt is a bitch and basically throws Jane in an orphanage after Jane faces off with her rich, spoiled brat cousin.  Jane goes to a school for orphan girls, loses her only little friend to typhoid fever, and grows up.  Instead of continuing a teaching job at the orphanage, she decides to take a governess job in gloomy Thornfield castle.

The gloomy castle belongs to Edward Rochester, a notorious rake with commitment issues who rarely shows up at his own house.  Jane does a decent job educating and raising Rochester’s bastard daughter, Adele.  Unexplained noises are heard in the attic.

Rochester’s room almost gets torched while he is sleeping but Jane saves him.  Rochester brings in a lady friend to stay at the castle, a superficial debutante looking to marry him for his money named Blanche.

Rochester realizes that it’s plain Jane (not beautiful Blanche) that he loves and they try to get married.  Suddenly, an old Jamaica acquaintance of Rochester’s reminds him that he is already married to a lunatic that he has been hiding in a locked room in the attic all along.

Jane, despite her love for Rochester, does not take him up on his offer to live in sin and moves away.  She discovers a long lost relation living nearby and assumes a position teaching again while pining for Rochester.

Jane comes into a small inheritance while turning down a marriage proposal from her missionary friend St. John.  Won’t give away the ending!

Jane Eyre, 1944  

Actors: Joan Fontaine as adult Jane, Orson Welles as Rochester

Peggy Garner as young Jane

The atmosphere is right on in this version of Jane Eyre, the very fact that in 1944 there was only black and white helped rather than hindered.  Lots of lightning strikes and creepy gothic rooms paint a lovely, dark picture; it’s too bad that the movie was so clumsily cast and badly interpreted, even though much of the book’s dialogue is lifted verbatim.  Jane’s childhood is very well done: sent from the house of her cruel aunt to live in an orphan asylum, it’s easy to believe the cold rooms and severe punishments of a cruel headmaster played brilliantly by Henry Daniell.  A young Liz Taylor makes a surprising cameo as Jane’s typhoid-fever victim friend Helen Burns; the two are forced to walk around in the rain as punishment for not being Christian or pious enough and the poor kid dies.

Jane grows up and that’s where the trouble is.  Joan Fontaine is far too pretty and submissive to handle a role like Jane Eyre.  She spends half her time smiling vacuously and the other half contriving a “faraway” glance.  She reminds me a great deal of Olivia de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With the Wind: she’s very soft and docile, but it’s all wrong for the role of Jane Eyre.  Joan is the Stepford wife version of Jane–she follows Rochester around like he’s a god.

Which brings us to Rochester.  Orson Welles is just not sexy, ever.  He does a great job acting the self-centered macho type, but it’s a real stretch of the imagination to picture Welle’s Rochester and Fontaine’s Eyre getting romantic.  Welles seems to do a great deal of standing around like he’s shooting the world’s earliest Captain Morgan’s Rum commercial.

Neither my mom nor I was impressed with this version, sorry to say, but Jane’s childhood was well-depicted and that deserves kudos.   Final Grade: C+

Jane Eyre, made for TV, 1997

Samantha Morton as adult Jane Eyre, Ciaran Hinds as Rochester

Laura Harling as young Jane

Awful.  Overacted.  Crap.  It was hard to find anything positive to say about this made for TV version of Jane Eyre.  I was very sad to find that it was not worth watching.  My mom agreed that this one has the worst Jane and the worst Rochester.  Jane’s awful childhood is glossed over: it’s not the only abbreviated scene either: huge portions of the plot are cut to fit a short 108 minute running time, including Jane’s return home when her aunt dies.

Zombies! And Yelling!

Samantha Morton is downright awful as Jane.  We find herself staring at her fivehead in order to avoid gazing too long into her tractor-field eyes.  I’m amazed the entire camera crew wasn’t transformed into a rabid band of flesh eating zombies by that stultifying glare of hers.  She wears a vapid, poop-eating grin for the whole two hours, even though the movie is only 108 minutes long.  As for Rochester, he’s an emotional mess.  With a lyrical name like Ciaran Hinds (doesn’t that just conjure the image of a beautiful Byronian stud-man?), I expected a good actor.  Uh, no.  Hinds’ Rochester isn’t even Rochester.  He’s a manic, gleeful teddy bear that never has a genuine moment.  Like almost every bad actor before him, Rochester yells the whole time.  He yells more than Christina Aguilera in the recording studio.

Just call him Uncle (I just barfed in my mouth a little)

He yells more than a drunken sailor who has stubbed his toe. The wedding is silly; we never believe the characters are in love even though Hinds has been screaming and grandstanding about it for 45 minutes.  When the two characters finally kiss, it looked exactly like a niece kissing her blowhard uncle.  So many shades of gross.

The gothic imagery that redeemed 1944’s Jane Eyre is totally missing.  If anything, the gloomy castle is rendered downright cheery in a sunny 1980’s Laura Ashley sort  of way, right down to Samantha Morton’s ugly brokedown princess Di wedding dress.

Just don’t bother with this Eyre adaptation, dig?  Final Grade: F

Jane Eyre 2011

 Mia Wasikowska as adult Jane Eyre, Michael Fassbender as Rochester

Amelia Clarkson as young Jane

Gloomy, gothic, and restrained, this is a wonderful Jane Eyre.  You know a film is good when it seems more like a glimpse of a past that could have been and not a bunch of actors prancing about a set.  This version is told as a flashback from the moment Jane runs away from castle Thornfield to shelter with St. John Rivers and his sisters.  It’s a clever way of breaking up the monotony of the novel.  The beginning orphan school scenes are very true to the book; in this way they are similar to the 1944 version.

I loved the “read between the lines” portrayals of the characters.  Dame Judi Dench rocks as the housemistress, again, director & casting dept. have chosen a sensitive actress who knows that subtlety can speak volumes.

Showing the rank amateurs how it's done! (and standing by a giant quilted iPod)

The casting of Mia Wasikowska is perfect.  She’s thorny, passionate, and restrained–even better, she almost never smiles but you like her anyway, just like the heroine in the novel.  Rochester (Fassbender) looks and acts just young enough to be a rake, but just old enough to be a tortured gentleman.

When these two dance around the edges of Victorian propriety, you actually believe it.

Like 19th century paintings, sweeping shots of gloomy moorland landscapes help us to feel the frailty and the mortality of the characters–this was largely missing in the two other adaptations, by the way.

Thank you Cary Fukunaga!  You’ve hit this one out of the park, and my Mom agrees!!  Bravo!

Final Grade: A+

One thought on “Film Reviews: Three Jane Eyres

  1. I totally agree with your assessment of the Cary Fukunaga adaptation. It’s just so perfect in every way – the atmosphere, Thornfield Hall, the relationship between the two leads, how Jane’s intelligence shines through and Rochester’s brooding sexiness does too (love that backlit scene of him in his nightshirt beating out the fire). I don’t think I even want to see other versions.

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