The European Film Festival is currently in bloom at the Gene Siskel Center and last night (the festivals 3rd) was a singular showing of the upcoming release Jane Eyre, starring a brooding Michael Fassbender and the lovely Mia Wasikowska, who I might just think is even more lovely for her presence, along with director Cary Fukunaga, at the post screening Q&A. I'd been looking forward to the screening all week and made sure to catch both Fukunaga's directorial debut, the lush and harrowing Sin Nombre, as well as a few of Wasikowska's episodes on In Treatment in preparation for the event. The one thing I didn't attempt, however, was to read Jane Eyre, one of many literary classics that I've never crossed paths with in any way; not the novel, not any film adaptation, nor even The Wide Sargasso Sea. Whether that put me at an advantage or disadvantage, I'm not sure, but it's always nice to approach an adaptation without the inevitable comparisons to the source material weighing on your mind.
Through some artfully arranged chronology, if a bit confusing to those unfamiliar with the book, the film opens with a fantastic flight across the countryside, a series of visually arresting landscapes that seem practically to swallow Jane whole. After this gorgeous opening, the film briefly holds an uneven pace while cutting back and forth between her early life and her time spent later with St. John Rivers (played by Jamie Bell, who has spent the last five years growing gigantic muttonchops instead of acting). When we at last arrive at Thornfield Hall, the story settles down as the famed romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester begins to take root.
Wasikowska rightly emerges as best in show. Jane Eyre is her vehicle all the way, and a much better one than either of her 2010 films can claim to be. A definitive role it's not, but she finds the perfect measure of strength within Jane, and her conflicted longings for Rochester are entirely believable. It's the kind of performance that Abbie Cornish couldn't quite pull off in Bright Star, so I'm glad to see Wasikowska nail it here. I've got no complaints about the rest of the cast, save for the stray observation of how underused Judi Dench and (especially) Sally Hawkins were. Honestly, between this, An Education, and Never Let Me Go, it's like she's good for two scenes tops and then clears out completely. C'mon, she only gave the best performance of the last five years. Let's not let talent like that go to waste.
As for Fukunaga, it seems crazy to compare a film like Jane Eyre to Sin Nombre, and in the Q&A he made a point of saying that he wants to go out of his way to never make the same film twice, but I think it's in his approach to location that the similarities shine through. A quick look at both films an you'll be overwhelmed by his landscape shots. He frames his vistas like Bruegel frames paintings, the lush landscapes surrounding the senses, making you wish you could linger on just to study them. The long stretches of the film that play out in the flickering candlelight of Thornfield Hall drag somewhat without the eye-popping visuals to captivate, but every now and then Fukunaga seizes on a window, and his eye for natural light makes us long to escape from the manor. He also manages to avoid sensationalizing in many of the areas you'd expect. In this regard, I imagine he drove the producers mad, but it was an interesting choice to downplay the both the fire and the dark secret of Thornfield Hall the way he did.
Much like in 2010, I started my yearly movie watching with a Mia Wasikowska movie, only this one was actually quite good (disclaimer, I don't blame her in the slightest for Travesty in Wonderland). This year though, I learned a valuable lesson: don't pass the first few months of the year watching trash. It's what happened last year, and by the time summer came around I was overrating half the releases I saw just because they didn't suck. Not so, 2011, I'm starting the year right and don't intend to be fooled by any of your mind-bending blockbusters come summertime.