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Jane Eyre's Mystery Man

A new screen adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's prefeminist novel reminds us how perplexed Jane was by the male animal.

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Jane Eyre

Directed by cary fukunaga

Somehow I managed to earn two English degrees without ever reading Jane Eyre, so when Focus Features announced a release date for the latest screen adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 masterpiece, I resolved to crack the book at long last. A heavy diet of movies can make you crave the immersive power of a great novel, the sense of being plunged deep into another person's consciousness, that so few filmmakers promise and even fewer deliver. Moreover, reading a classic on your own time can be a bigger intellectual adventure than reading it for college credit, when you know you'll be graded on having learned the book's standard interpretation and the professor might be pouring that conventional wisdom into your head before you've even finished the text. Now I can inflict my wacky interpretation of Jane Eyre on the whole world instead of handing it in to a single reader and getting it back with a B–.

Given the book's reputation as a protofeminist tale, what most surprised me about Jane Eyre was how preoccupied it is with men. Brontë struck a mighty blow for her gender when she created her title character and narrator, an orphaned girl who matures into a formidably self-possessed young woman; Jane's moral sensibility is so detailed, so fully realized, that no reader could think her any less a person than the men surrounding her. Yet Jane, a hardheaded pragmatist, knows full well that the world is governed by men, and the narrative centers on her ongoing efforts to make sense of these powerful, often cruel, always mysterious creatures. The most perplexing of all is Edward Fairfax Rochester, the brooding landowner who becomes her boss when she lands a position as governess to his young ward, Adele. Harboring a deep, dark secret from his past, Rochester epitomizes the male animal, which may be the reason so many movie versions of Jane Eyre have stood or fallen on the skill of the actor playing him.

From the novel's opening pages, Brontë presents men as unknowable at best and stupidly violent at worst. Jane's father, a poor clergyman, died when she was a toddler, as did her mother, whose wealthy family had disapproved of the marriage. Now ten years old, Jane lives in a fine house with her maternal aunt, who despises her, and suffers the bullying of her vicious cousin, John, who smacks her in the head with a book so hard that he draws blood. After railing at him, Jane is punished for the incident instead of John, locked in the little "red room" where her uncle died years earlier. "If you don't repent, something bad might be permitted to come down the chimney, and fetch you away," a servant tells her. This awful notion, combined with the eerie aspect of her uncle's death chamber, so terrifies Jane that eventually she keels over. We're barely two chapters into the book, and already the only male characters are a little sadist and two ghostly figures.

Cousin John's adult counterpart soon arrives in the form of Mr. Brocklehurst, the priggish founder of a Calvinist boarding school for girls who's summoned to take Jane away shortly after the opening fracas. (In the new movie he's played by the wonderful character actor Simon McBurney, who specializes in upper-crust villains.) Jane gets off one of her most memorable fuck-you lines when Brocklehurst asks her how she plans to avoid the fires of hell and the little girl replies, "I must keep in good health, and not die." But this proves easier said than done once Jane arrives at Lowood School, whose students are ill-clothed and ill-fed, in line with Brocklehurst's ideal of physical mortification, and whose location in a boggy dell makes it an incubator for typhus. Jane receives a lesson in Christian forbearance from Helen Burns, an older girl at the school, but this new friend soon dies of consumption.

Oddly, Brontë devotes comparatively little space to Jane's years in this all-female community; after the death of Helen Burns, the story leaps ahead eight years to the point at which Jane, now 18 and a teacher at Lowood, decides to leave the school and finds a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall. The master is traveling when she arrives at this grand mansion in the English countryside, and her first encounter with Mr. Rochester establishes him as a mysterious figure. Walking into town to post a letter, Jane hears a horse approaching and imagines that it's an old spirit known as the Gytrash, "which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travelers." The horse, startled by her sudden appearance in its path, goes down, momentarily pinning its rider, and as bad luck would have it, this irate man turns out to be Jane's new boss.

Rochester is a mercurial character. Tender and solicitous one moment, rude and sarcastic the next, he takes an immediate interest in Jane but never hesitates to exercise his power over her. When Jane observes to the housekeeper that Rochester is "changeful and abrupt," the old woman explains that he's spent more than a decade reckoning with the machinations of his father and brother, since deceased, who "combined to bring Mr. Edward into what he considered a painful position, for the sake of making his fortune: what the precise nature of that position was I never clearly knew, but his spirit could not brook what he had to suffer in it. He is not very forgiving: he broke with his family, and now for many years he has led an unsettled kind of life. I don't think he has been resident at Thornfield for a fortnight together, since the death of his brother without a will, left him master of the estate: and, indeed, no wonder he shuns the old place."

The key to that mystery is one of the more startling revelations in Gothic literature, and I'm not about to spoil it here. But it serves to make Rochester a challenge for even the most talented movie actor. Jane Eyre had already been filmed nine times before the sound era arrived, and the first all-talking version, a one-hour bastardization released in 1934 by the poverty-row studio Monogram Pictures, starred Colin Clive, best known as the feverish mad scientist in Frankenstein ("It's alive! It's alive!"). With that moody performance on his resumé, Clive must have seemed like an obvious choice to play Rochester, but he never has a chance: the hackwork script turns the master of Thornfield Hall into a pussycat, constantly mooning over the lovely Jane (Virginia Bruce). Casting handsome stars in the lead roles has been a chronic compromise in adapting Jane Eyre, whose heroine is repeatedly described as plain looking and whose hero is downright ugly.

William Hurt also succumbed to excessive niceness when he played Rochester in the dull 1996 version, directed by the egregiously tasteful Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet). Hurt is a hugely likable actor, but onscreen he often betrays a deep need to be liked, which can be fatal when playing such a prickly character. Opposite a stiff-necked Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane, he's almost goofily emotive when he should be angrily guarded; he seems desperate to spill his guts to her when the Rochester of the novel is way too proud to reveal what's eating at him. As Leonard Maltin has pointed out, the two stars lack any sort of romantic chemistry, but that's partly because Hurt has blunted the very aspect of Rochester's personality that so attracts Jane: the visible friction between the kind man he'd like to be and the irritable dick he actually is.

Jane Eyre has been filmed so many times, and Rochester has been played by so many actors, that if I tried to list them all yet another version might be released before I was done. George C. Scott, who never had a problem with excessive niceness, played Rochester in a 1970 British feature and received high marks for his performance; so did Timothy Dalton when he took on the role for a 1983 BBC miniseries. I haven't seen either of these versions, but for my money the best Rochester ever would have to be Orson Welles in the high-Hollywood adaptation released by 20th Century-Fox in 1943. Welles was ten years too young for the part—Rochester is 38—and had to wear a corset, but his voluptuous self-regard is a pretty good match for the hero's Byronic agony. He seems to be operating on an entirely different wavelength from the other actors (his costar, Joan Fontaine, couldn't stand him), yet Welles was both sensitive and arrogant enough to capture the duelling elements of Rochester's personality.

The new version of Jane Eyre is far and away the best I've seen, thanks largely to the skilled young actress Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right). As Jane, she seems to have internalized the young woman's peculiar mix of willfulness and watchfulness, defiance and modesty, that enables her to survive as a lower-class woman in Victorian England without sacrificing her soul. Rochester is played by wolfish Michael Fassbender, who gave a harrowing performance as the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008) and has no apparent need for a corset. Unlike the wimpy Clive and the pouting Hurt, Fassbender errs slightly on the side of abrasiveness: his treatment of Jane and the other women who serve him is so harsh, and his pursuit of Jane so haughty, that you sometimes wonder what she sees in him. Yet like many women, Jane is attracted to a man not for what she can see in him but for what remains hidden.

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