June 18, 2008

Movie Review: Jane Eyre

[I’m hoping to turn this into a regular feature, as I’ve recently gotten more involved with my rarely-used Netflix account (which currently holds soapy Mexican dramas while I wait for Persepolis to drop). The first thing that arrived in my mailbox was the latest BBC version of Jane Eyre.]

Ask yourself, if you are ever filming a new adaptation of Jane Eyre: When Jane is staring at Rochester, do you question every relationship you ever had? When they're talking, looking away, barely concealing their love—do you find that your hands are folded? Do your eyes wander to doorways, making sure you’re alone? Will you back the DVD up so many times, you risk burning it out of sync? No? Then you have made a sub-par Jane Eyre.

Toby Stephens doesn't seem to have a handle on the role. It’s like he ordered the Acme Rochester Kit (contents: ruffly blouse (1) finger waves (14) inappropriate leer (1 per scene) and set the "tortured buccaneer” dial to nuclear. Now, there are elements of both ‘tortured’ and ‘buccaneer’ about Rochester; he’s lost his family, inherited their fortune, been brokenhearted, harbors a mistrust of women bordering on misogeny and spends most of his time traveling to avoid his crazy wife. There are elements of his character to despise and to pity, and the ability to show them simultaneously is the key to the role (see Ciaran Hinds). Stephens takes "cocky bastard" and "brooding martyr” archetypes and hopes, by flipping them fast enough that the ensuing zoetrope will be a coherent performance, but it’s too slow, too unfinished, and we see only pictures. It should be more seamless than that.

My other objection to Stephens as Rochester is entirely physical: he is just too goddamned sexy for the role. I have a serious bias in my bonnet porn, and that is I hate when the actors are attractive. Keep Gwenyth out of Emma and keep male protagonists average-looking—especially in Rochester's case; he's supposed to be forty-ish and unkempt. Why he felt the need to have his shirt unbuttoned to the waist in the bedroom fire scene I do not know, because the entire point of bonnet-wank is to make these normal, well-spoken ideals into women’s fantasies… and while TS is hotter than Georgia in July, the man-whore detail just made it that much cheaper. This ain’t harlequin, Toby. Make us work for it.

Ruth Wilson, on the other hand, is perfect. She looks fresh and innocent, but when she starts talking you can hear Union Jacks unfurl. She’s naïve without being clueless, and reconciles her childish passion (and brief happiness) with a resolute sensilbility, often using only six muscles in her face to get it done. She is not pretty, but beautiful in her actions, and as with any relationship her features grow more attractive as we get to know her.

The un-prettiness is a requirement, but does not double as the performance itself (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who I generally love, played Jane like a parrot practicing How Not to Be Seen: stand so utterly motionless we fear there are Victorian Tyrannosaurus on the loose; when direct questions are addressed, cock head to side to show impossibly slender neck. Repeat). Wilson has the depth necessary for the choices her character makes, and she and Stephens play off each other well, even if their performances are so mismatched that every scene ends with her handing him his head.

The best bits, sadly, are when Jane gets the hell away from Thornfield. I loved her cousins—even St John, which is saying a lot. They did a nice job of setting him up as a foil for Jane (she might otherwise be seen as cold but she is truly passionate, blah-blah inner-soul-vs.-outside-appearance theme). I like that they showed Jane returning to Thornfield on her own terms with her own money (two snaps) and taking Rochester's raggedy ass back. Although his ass is less than raggedy; hello, teeny scar on the cheek meant to denote TOTAL BLINDNESS. God.

The insurmountable problem I had, the worst thing you can do to a film adaptation of a classic novel besides modernizing it, is the protagonists mugging down every scene since they announced their engagement. I'll have to re-read the book, but I sincerely doubt Jane would lie on a bed and let Rochester get to second base after she learned he had a CRAZY WIFE IN THE ATTIC. You can't make the case that she's sensible and throw this scene in--or if you have to (and you don't) you do it before the revealed bigamy. Jane's just not that stupid.

But as I say, you don’t have to, even if you’re Hollywood (or the BBC equivalent), because such things are anachronistic—and worse, are not in the novel. There is no making out, there is no dry-humping or unwed cuddling, because you are the alpha couple and you don’t do things that tertiary characters who get the cholera or have affairs or lose their pregnancies do. You do the proper thing, and that is how you are alive and married and mostly whole by the end of the book. It’s not a template for life, it’s a template of the genre, and if it works within its own guidelines than showing that is better than trying to improve upon it. This is the hand these characters were dealt, and this is how they roll with it; exposing decolletage and creating fantasy scenes is neither icing nor interpretation, it’s embroidery where none is needed.

This doesn’t change the fact that the makeout scenes were completely hot. I'm not made of stone. But I had to will myself into divorcing prior knowledge of the characters I love to get through it. If it were Marianne Dashwood or Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary—in other words, if the actions suited the characters—I would be on board. I loved their banter and teasing, and I'd love to watch them make out as any other characters, but as Jane and Rochester... not believable. Out of time, out of place, out of character. If these same actors were in a generic period piece, I would turn down the lights and embrace early menopause, but… it's Jane Eyre. It didn't happen, and the book is better for it.

That said, someone needs to sign these actors in Pirates of Desire, replete with eyepatches and bodices and Toby Stephens as bad as he wanna be because--even with all the wrong--it was still pretty hot.

Rating: B


hopeinbrazil said...

I agree with you. The steamy scenes, though mild by modern standards, did not jibe with the book's characters, especially in Jane's case.

The best Rochester for me was George C. Scott (old and gruff enough, yet mysteriously appealing) But no good versions of that film exist on DVD.

Sarah Beedoo said...

Oooh, I haven't seen that one. GCS was dishy back in the day; wonder if I can find an old copy...

Dann Rafferty said...


"Hotter than Georia in July."


Mamaclsn said...

Screw Jane Eyre. I am back in the links!

Sarah Beedoo said...

@Dann: What's a zomig? Do they eat brains?

@Jen: NO screwing Jane Eyre; that's the whole point! Sheesh!
(Good to have you back :^)

Anonymous said...

hahahahaha Victorian Tyrannosaurus.