Thursday, March 24, 2011

'Jane Eyre' only fitfully springs to life

Come on baby, light my fire. This Jane Eyre takes too long to spark.
Watching Jane Eyre, the umpteenth adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's, dog-eared 1847 novel, I was besieged by a single nagging thought: "Will high school English never end?"

I had approached the latest big-screen edition of Jane Eyre with more hope than usual, mostly because Cary Joji Fukunaga directed it. Fukunaga's previous work - the viscerally charged immigration drama Sin Nombre - seemed light years away from the world of Bronte, but Fukunaga could have been precisely the right man to breathe new life into a literary classic.

Did he? Not entirely.

Despite the presence of a gifted young actress - Mia Wasikowska - this Jane Eyre comes up short on urgency and passion. Even the presence of the estimable Judi Dench, as the housekeeper at the movie's principal location - Thornfield Hall - doesn't provide a totally compelling reason for us once again to trample across the moors.

Of course, it's all mostly acceptable. And, yes, I'm being something of a spoilsport. Jane Eyre is by no means a bad movie, just one that probably needn't have been made. Besides, if you can't give into your prejudices now and then, what's the point of being a critic?

For those who don't know, the story begins with Jane's mistreatment by an aunt (Sally Hawkins) after her parents die. Jane's shipped off to an orphanage where she's further abused. When she's old enough to leave, Jane lands a position as governess to a child who's being cared for by the gloomy Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbinder).

Rochester's house, we learn, harbors a secret: Jane, we learn, is forbidden from entering an attic room, and often hears strange goings-on about the house with Fukunaga cranking up the ominous atmosphere.

Fassbinder lacks the stature that Orson Welles brought to the role of Rochester, a man whose demeanor can be gruff. Fassbinder broods with the best of them, but he's probably not imposing enough.

Wasikowska - familiar to those who've seen Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland or those who saw her as the daughter of Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right -- is a gifted young actress - but even her work can't always elevate a Jane Eyre that takes its time finding the kind chemistry between Jane and Rochester that can satisfy committed romantics.

Oh well. Enough. With movies such as Jane Eyre I'm never sure whether to write a review or a book report.

So to borrow a phrase from Bill Maher, maybe we need a new rule: Please, a moratorium on movies made from novels for which there are CliffsNotes.

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