Review: Jane Eyre (2011)

By  · Published on March 14th, 2011

When Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) was quite young, her parents died and she was left in the care of her aunt. The aunt took none too kindly to Jane’s outspokenness and her free spirit and promptly sent her to a finishing school where education was synonymous with corporal punishment. Years later, having survived her sentence at that school, she is employed as the governess for the daughter of the wealthy Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). A love blossoms between them, but a terrible secret threatens to tear them apart. Melodrama ensues.

I may very well invoke your judgment and scorn with the following admission: I don’t like period romance films. That being said, I happily volunteered to review Jane Eyre. No, this was not rooted in a sadistic desire to rip the film to shreds but rather the result of a very deceitful piece of marketing. If you haven’t seen the trailer, and you are as ignorant of the story of Jane Eyre as I was, it sells you on an atmospheric horror film set in the Victorian Age. They go so far as to appropriate the Goblin score from Suspiria and lay it over the three seemingly supernatural moments of the film.

Turns out, now that I’ve seen the movie and had a few gaps filled in for me, there is a pseudo ghost story interwoven into the fabric of Jane Eyre, but this adaptation does nothing to cultivate it so the trailer is an out and out lie. But forgoing the ruse that got me in that seat, let’s dissect Jane Eyre as we would a film of any other genre.

It’s as dry as a rice cake and every bit as dull. The cinematography is wholly uninteresting and often relies on heavy-handed and deliberate imagery. If that shot of the crossroads were any more obvious, there would have been a sign posting the mileage to Decisionburgh and North Waffling. Though admittedly the natural landscapes lend themselves to a few nice shots. The plot moves with the impressive briskness of a tortoise towing a Volvo and the majority of the first act is little more than a reminder that Victorian nobility were among the slimiest, most orphan-hating bastards in history.

The relief we get from this parade of tedium and cruelty is the promise of a classic love story. The problem is, as much as I appreciate the performances of both Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, I don’t buy their relationship one iota. He does nothing to suggest that he’s interested in her and then openly professes his love for her completely out of left field. Funny, I’m not sure parading another woman around in front of Jane and then chastising her for ignoring you while you’re ignoring her actually qualifies as being in love with her. And yet somehow this love is reciprocated? It’s forced and unconvincing and its middling near-stoicism still manages to amount to the film’s most dynamic emotionality.

It is my firm belief that Victorian romance films need to go away. Say what you want about my “not getting it,” or the far more concrete argument that someone of my cinematic proclivities is not among the genre’s target demographic, but I just find these films to be irrelevant. More finitely, I find copy/paste adaptations of Victorian literature have worn out their welcome. It’s not enough that we’ve had a dozen film incarnations of each of the classics, but far too few of the current spate are even attempting to incorporate any modern concepts or ideas. When you are merely copying what’s been done one thousand times before, you’ve lost sight of film as an artistic endeavor and are operating more on the level of a high school drama program with a schedule to keep.

What kills me is so many film snobs maintain that movies like this are the best that cinema has to offer. But if, as in the case of this particular adaptation of Jane Eyre, the love story is forced and the characters uneven, what then is the appeal of this love story? The character of Jane Eyre? Problem there is the character of Jane Eyre is only remarkable given the context of when she was written. Yes, it was remarkable in the 19th Century that a woman would dare speak her mind and count herself an equal to men. But at this point in time, praising a woman for speaking her mind and being independent is so far removed from revolutionary that it’s downright patronizing. So remove those elements from the film and what do you have left to enjoy? The costumes? The set pieces?

If that be the case, then it’s really the spectacle wherein the appeal lies. What then makes it any different than people who flock to see Transformers or Iron Man? Lovers of blockbuster films are seduced by the grandeur of cinema just as much as people who will be sucked in by this adaptation of Jane Eyre. Much like even the worst Michael Bay film, Jane Eyre looks great but offers little substance.

The Upside: If your greatest disappointment in life is that Freshmen Lit. didn’t last the rest of your life, you’ll love it.

The Downside: Dry, dull, and lacking any real substance in the way of romance or character development. If you’ve seen one film adaptation of Jane Eyre, you’ve seen them all.

On the Side: Jamie Bell will always be Billy Elliot in my mind.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.