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Film Review

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Bronte, is surely one of the most famous novels of that century, and still widely read, loved and taught. It is a story of courage, will, persistence, and goodness, personified by Jane, who finally triumphs over great hurt inflicted by cruel adults in a generally uncaring society. It's clear why so many generations of young women found this story so appealing. Bronte's tale was particularly compelling in an era when women were expected to be submissive, obedient, and unadventuresome. It closely mirrors her own life, and her insistence on independence mark it as early feminist literature. Charlotte Bronte, one of four sisters whose mother and one sister died early, was reared by her clergyman father in Yorkshire, then by an aunt, then sent with her sisters to a terrible school, whose conditions were so difficult and the teachers so cruel, that her father ultimately pulled the girls out of the school. All of the sisters were deeply affected by their experience at school, and two died from tuberculosis contracted there. It is no accident that Bronte used the name Lowood for the school in her novel. All the sisters began writing when young, but only Charlotte became famous, for her Jane Eyre.

The story is a Gothic novel/love story, and the coming of age of a young girl, Jane Eyre. After being cast out by her aunt, and enduring a terrible school, she becomes a governess at Thornhill, a Gothic mansion in an isolated part of Yorkshire. She meets the seething owner, Edward Rochester, as his horse throws him, falls in love with him, but assumes that he will marry a more suitable woman, one with wealth and status. Many things intervene, Bronte lovers know the story well, but that famous first line in her last chapter says it all: " Reader, I ..........."

Mia Wasikowska (Australian; the daughter in "The Kids are All Right") plays Jane, in wonderfully understated acting, with her hair center parted and pursed lips, conveying the determination that is such an essential part of her character. She is only 21, yet seemed as if she had been acting all her life. Michael Fassbender "(Inglorious Basterds") plays Rochester, with the passion, insolence, and strangeness that Bronte described so well. But Waskiowska walks away with the film. Judi Dench is excellent, as always, as the sympathetic housekeeper of Thornhill, and as well the other characters, mostly English performers familiar from Masterpiece Theater productions. The film opens with Jane running away from a mansion, into the moors, where she collapses. A few minutes later we see that her escape really occurs much later in the story, and the beginning is told in a prolonged flashback. The out of sequence order seems strange for an early novel, but it works well here.

Much of the filming was on location in Derbyshire. The cinematography is ravishing, and even the moors look good. Thornhill is appropriately gloomy, and Lowood, not only gloomy, but the head master and teachers gratuitously cruel to Jane. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the novel and many lines will be familiar to Bronte lovers, such as Jane's poignant reproach to Edward Rochester : "Do you think I am a machine without feeling? Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?" It was a cri de coeur from the lips of millions of 19th Century women, and still resonates. The cello music, all classical, is lovely and appropriate.

Perhaps no other novel has been so often seen on the screen. There have been at least 16 film and 9 television versions, most recently a well reviewed BBC production in 2006. This director, Cary Fukunaga, is best know for his recent, powerful "Sin Nombre", which in setting and story could not be more different than "Jane Eyre". Yet he has taken Bronte's story and made it compelling, while not sacrificing the development of the main characters.

Some Bronte fans were disappointed that the film did not more closely track the novel. But a novel and a story designed to be seen are not the same thing, and it seems appropriate for a director to change details to make the story flow more smoothly or to emphasize a character as long as the director remains faithful to the writer's intent. Not an easy task to reduce a 400 page novel to 121 minutes of film and still preserve it's integrity. Fukunaga has done just that. This writer is always irritated by anachronisms: kerosene lamps (not used until the 1860's), Rochester kissing Jane openly (not in 1840's England), but they certainly add to the visuals. This is no chick flick; it has a power and substance that will endure. So many of the scenes and dialogue stayed with me that it prompted me to begin reading the novel. I loved the film. Definitely should be a big screen experience, and fortunately playing at both the Embarcadero and the Kabuki.

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