Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
United Kingdom, 2011. Focus Features, BBC Films, Ruby Films, Lipsync Productions. Screenplay by Moir Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte. Cinematography by Adriano Goldman. Produced by Alison Owen, Paul Trijbits. Music by Dario Marianelli. Production Design by Will Hughes-Jones. Costume Design by Michael O’Connor. Film Editing by Melanie Oliver. Academy Awards 2011. Dorian Awards 2011. National Board of Review Awards 2011. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2011.
It’s not as if Charlotte Brontë’s most eternally celebrated novel has been dramatically underrepresented over the last century: countless adaptations for stage, screen and the tube have been produced, giving fans plenty of options as to preference for tone, narrative edit and cast suitability. While it’s hard to say whether or not this latest big-screen version of one of the most satisfying reads of all time is the definitive one, it is, from the among those that I have seen, the one which recalls the emotional pleasure of reading the novel better than any of the others. Mia Wasikowska is perfectly suited to the role of the titular heroine, who grows up cast off from her relatives and survives an abusive country school to become a governess for the cantankerous single gentleman Rochester (Michael Fassbender) and his delightful French ward. While living in practical seclusion with the two of them and their dotty housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), Jane is occupied by the increasing feelings of sympathy she feels for Rochester and by the ever growing presence of a menace in the house that she cannot name. Director Cary Fukunaga emphasizes gloomy light in dank hallways throughout the film as if to throw off the shackles of gloriously plush period filmmaking: it seems that the precise moment that Sam Neill threw wooden planks down for Holly Hunter to minimize the mud on her petticoats in Jane Campion’s The Piano was the instant of liberation for costume dramas to no longer feel the need to be pristine, and this is one of its descendants (just as Campion’s film was considered one of Brontë’s). Screenwriter Moira Buffini does an impressive job of fitting the entire plot in without employing a mammoth running time, but what is most remarkable is how deeply emotional many of the points of the film are: Jane’s moral barometer coupled with her diminutive stature make her admirable and pitiable at the same time, and Wasikowska finds enormous reserves of depth in exploring these aspects of her character. Directors love to celebrate the hardy heroine who tells her new employer that she does not find him handsome, but few of them also mine the vulnerability Wasikowska displays when she implores Rochester to respect her position as a woman at the mercy of a man’s world: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” It’s the most powerful moment in the film, practically as satisfying an experience as the words “Reader, I married him” are to behold on the author’s page. Fassbender matches her with his sexy, growling Rochester, a face that terrifies and arouses with its wide, devouring mouth and lustfully bright eyes, while smaller but memorable performances come from Jamie Bell as the morally obnoxious St. John (Sssssinjin) Rivers, Sally Hawkins as a shockingly curious Mrs. Reed, and the sadly underused but impeccably talented Valentina Cervi as Bertha Mason.