I was probably about 14 years old the last time I read Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre. I really wish I’d re-read it before going to see Cary Fukunaga’s new film adaptation. The movie is beautiful, with huge, sweeping, dramatic vistas of the tortured Jane wildly traversing the moors. (Do “moors” exist in Victorian England? Or am I getting this confused with the other Brontë sister’s Yorkshire? Whatever, it was cool.) At its heart, Jane Eyre is part Gothic horror-story, and many scenes at the Thornfield estate kept me on the edge of my seat. Mia Wasikowska was last seen in The Kids Are All Right – as well as Tim Burton’s recent adaptation of Alice in Wonderland – and she certainly shows her range here as Jane, exuding cool distance when warranted, muted feistiness when appropriate, and tear-stained, agonizing grief when reasonable. The incomparable, favorite-ever Judi Dench, in an uncharacteristic straight-woman role, shines as the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax. But the real treat here (at least for me) is Michael Fassbender in the role of Rochester. Ooooooooh…my. I’m getting chills just remembering. Fassbender has a voice like sexy, sexy gravel. His scenes with Jane are so fiercely intense that I had the urge to douse myself in my Icee just to get through the movie. Fassbender was recently seen as an English-soldier-disguised-as-Nazi in the tavern scene in Inglorious Basterds. I plan to see him in every single movie he does from this point forward. I hope for more passionate, disheveled scenes. Preferably with shirt at least half unbuttoned.
I saw Jane Eyre with two very old friends. We’ve been through thick and thin together, but I do believe they nearly disowned me when I revealed my feelings about Jane and Rochester’s eventual union (we all knew the story already…right? Is this a spoiler? Ugh, okay, yes, they end up together and he has a crazy ex-wife in the attic. There, you’re welcome). I was so, so concerned! I felt like she was a girlfriend making a bad decision, one that I’d talk about endlessly behind her back while trying to put on a brave face for her in person. Not only was Rochester a haunted man from the moment they met, but by the time Jane decides to give him her entire life he’s also…well…blind. And even more haunted. She has a long, long life ahead of her. (I seem to actually recall feeling the same way when I read the story as a young ‘un, which makes me think I was kind of an unsentimental little thing).
But my friends were not going to let this go without a fight, and – wonderful and well adjusted as they are – reminded me of many things about the story that I’d forgotten. To many scholars, the book is considered an important early feminist novel. Jane is educated. She’s strong. She isn’t interested in money. She’s independent, and this is the life she chooses for herself. Additionally (it was pointed out), Rochester’s decision to lock his first wife away is actually seen as a noble one. The only other option for women with mental illness in this era was a madhouse, with terrible conditions. Really, he too is a passionate, intelligent man with morals and principles – making him an even more perfect match for Jane.
So, though overall I’m torn, I do have even more respect for Brontë. With stories like Jane Eyre is it possible that she and her contemporaries normalized women making independent decisions about their lives and their mates? Is it because of Brontë that I can, in fact, put thought into my own decisions and those of my friends? Is she the one that’s given me the ability to question such decisions, show concern when they’re risky, and celebrate them when they turn into accomplishments? It seems that this may indeed be the case, and I’m grateful to Fukunaga to bringing the story to a new generation of passionate, accomplished women. I urge all to see the movie, and to decide for themselves.