Went to see the new production of Jane Eyre last night, in good part because Cary Fukunaga‘s earlier “Sin Nombre“ about Honduran immigrants coming through Mexico on the tops of trains and their encounters with vicious gangs, had been so striking and so outside of standard Hollywood fare. He’d done an earlier immigrant story as well, “Victoria para Chino,” about the deaths of 80 illegals being smuggled into the U.S. in the back of a malfunctioning refrigerated truck. So what interested him in Jane Eyre, surely one of the most filmed famous novels in history?
Well, I can’t answer that. It was a decent film. It’s garnered high middling reviews. Mia Wasikowska has just the right not too pretty prettiness Bronte claims for her. The big old Thornfield House is spooky enough. Judy Dench is, as usual, excellent, this time as Mrs. Fairfax, the friendly house keeper. Rochester [Michael Fassbender], however suffers in comparison to the must-see version of the movie, with Orson Welles as the moody, eruptive Rochester with the big secret. It’s not that Fassbender is bad at all. He’s very attractive, somewhat confusing and very remorseful once his secret is out. It’s just that Orson Welles is a very high bar to meet, and he doesn’t.
In fact, the whole of the 1944 Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Stevenson with Welles and Joan Fontaine as Jane, conveys the spookiness of the house, the terrible secret, Rochester’s unpredictability, much stronger than this year’s offering. Shot in contrasty black and white, with noir-ish shadows and silhouettes, ground fog drifting into almost every outdoor scene and Wellesian melodramatic facial gestures, it stops just on the right side of being a cult horror movie. The encounter scene between Jane and Rochester on the horse is ever so much darker. The atmosphere of the house itself is much more predictive of some terrible secret hidden inside than the setting for a British mystery series the house, in color, seems to be.
The early scenes of young Jane in Lowood House, along with the young, and seldom credited Elizabeth Taylor as her dying friend Helen, are crueler as well, particularly the isolation stool scene. We really get a sense of her aloneness in a lingering wide distance shot in the earlier black and white. In color and with more use of modern close up work the punishment seems more of a symbol of evil childhood practices than our actually being brought in to witness them
The Stevenson version also strips out the story of Jane’s time with the minister, St. John Rivers and his two sisters, following the broken wedding ceremony, and her sudden inheritance of wealth. Heck, why waste some happiness on a great tale of woe? Though Stevenson did use Bronte’s ending of Rochester’s sight eventually returning, which Fukunaga did not, while adding his own happy twist, outside Bronte’s conception, of a first born boy “with eyes as dark and penetrating as his own.”
There are a couple of editing slip-ups in the Fukunaga version as well. The most egregious is an elided scream that wakes up everyone in Thornhill Manor the night the family of Rochester’s supposed intended is staying over. In the ’44 version it’s very clear why they are all clustered in their night dresses with candles in hand, underlighting their terrified faces. In the ’11 version, at least in the cut we saw, the scream was either so short, or non-existent, that all we could do was surmise that something had happened as Rochester assures everyone it’s nothing, go back to bed. The score for the new version also gets carried away in parts, overplaying the swelling emotion of their eventual reunion and carrying on, into the credits.
The new version won’t feel like a cheat, especially at a matinee or at senior’s rates, but do not miss seeing Orson Wells prowl the dark corridors of his mansion and his own mind 65 years ago.