Saturday, March 19, 2011

Jane Eyre

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

I confess that I’ve always loved the story of Jane Eyre first published as a victorian novel by Charlotte Brontë in 1847. I’ve seen three of the film versions of the story – the 1944 version written by John Houseman and Aldrous Huxley with Orson Welles playing Mr. Rochester, the 1996 version by directed by Franco Zeffirelli and featuring William Hurt in the role of Mr Rochester and now the current 2011 version, screen play by Moira Buffini, directed by Cary Fukunaga and featuring Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre. Each version had its different take on the story while following its basic outlines.

That there would be 15 screen adaptations of Jane Eyre made around the world testifies to its enduring power. Indeed, it would be interesting to compare Jane Eyre with Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables (first published in 1862 or 15 years after Jane Eyre) because thematically the two tread similar ground and both stories have spawned a cottage industry of film and theatrical productions by every generation since the stories’ first publication (There have also been over 50 screen adaptations of Les Miserables made around the world since the novel’s publication).

What makes Jane Eyre work? It’s obviously the story. Jane Eyre, an orphan, first cared for by an unloving aunt, is sent a girls’ "boarding school from hell", where the school master publically orders her to be "shunned" for disobedience and her only friend dies in her arms of typhus. After completing such schooling, she takes a job as a governess at the home of Mr Rochester.  Despite treating her initially with distance (which could be interpreted as disdain) because of both her gender and her lower rank, Rochester gradually warms up to her and falls in love with her. It does not work-out however. (Those who’ve read the book or seen other screen versions of the story will know why.  Those who don't, read the book or see the movie). She leaves the Rochester mansion and is helped by the family of a clergyman who sets her up as a teacher in a local charity school. The clergyman himself falls in love with her but she doesn’t fall in love with him. He does not understand why. She then seeks to return back to the Rochester household...

Remarkable about Jane is that despite her age, rank (social class) and gender, Jane always holds her own. Throughout her life, everybody initially underestimates her but she makes it through life and even achieves happiness without ever resorting to vengeance. As such, she’s a character that is appealing to anyone who hasn’t had it exactly easy in life (not unlike the character of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables) and offers hope that the beatitudes "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Mt 5:5) and "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Mt 5:7) are indeed true.

Every new version has its own take on the story. The current film version by written by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga tends to underline the more the feminist / gender relations aspects of the story than previous versions. Notable here is simply that the principal star of this version is Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre rather than the actor (in this case Michael Fassbender) as Rochester.

Indeed this is the second movie in a year in which Mia Wasikowska has played the lead role in a beloved woman centered story from the 19th century. Last year, she played the lead in a updated / re-imagined version of Alice in Wonderland. In both cases, she was excellent and brings to fore the insights and concerns of our time, while remaining true to the character of the past. It will be interesting to see what Wasikowska will able to achieve in the future as her career proceeds.

I’d recommend this movie to everyone teenage and above, especially to families with teenage daughters. It’s a lovely story of both hardship and hard-won redemption but with "malice toward none."  In short, it offers a great example to young people about how to face "the tough times" with kindness and grace.

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