Charlotte Bronte, the daughter of an obscure Anglican clergyman, wrote this novel as a young single woman, in part based on her personal experience with being sent to a clergy daughters’ school after the death of her mother. Her main character, Jane Eyre, orphaned, is scorned by her rich, self-absorbed aunt, and sent to a children’s home where she is systematically punished for being “willful.” It’s painful to watch children being beaten with switches by stern headmasters, even if it is “pretend.” Jane does, however, receive a modicum of education, which was not always available to girls of that time. (Ms. Bronte herself found it necessary to publish her novel under a male pseudonym.) Jane also possesses remarkable artistic talent, and speaks fluent French, which is useful when an inquiry comes to her school about a bilingual governess needed for a little girl whose mother was French, and whose father is English, so Jane Eyre finds herself employed in the Rochester household.
Jane Eyre is so unfamiliar with life outside her cloistered upbringing that she is unaware that the person who greets her, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), is not the mistress of the house, but rather, the housekeeper. Naturally, she projects a certain proprietary sense about the whole place, especially since the ostensibly widowed Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is so often “away on business.”
When Mr. Rochester does return, he seems distracted, lethargic and ill-tempered. Nevertheless, he appreciates the new governess’ bilingual fluency, for the sake of his daughter, and also her directness with him. (Jane, not being raised in a servant’s family, doesn’t project the same kind of subdued deference as the other hired help. Once a P.K., always a P.K.)
We all know what’s going to happen next. The lord of the manor begins to develop an admiration, perilously close to affection, for his child’s tutor, and she is willing to entertain at least a curiosity about him. Now, with everybody buttoned up both literally and figuratively, we have lots of quiet fireside conversations and a kind of oblivious slow-burning attraction, even while Mr. Rochester is engaged to an appropriate society lady who seems suitably coquettish with her fiancée and consistently haughty with the hired help (including our indefatigable Ms. Eyre).
In a moviegoing era featuring “friends with benefits” and full-frontal nudity and full-on sexual compulsivity, it’s quite a contrast to concentrate on the sidelong glance, the electric touch of fingers on top of a hand, the unexplained absences and the unexplored emotions. Perhaps the contrast with our contemporary culture is so profound that we find it amusing for relationships to first be built on dialogue, then observation, and a determined emotional distance, even to the day of the wedding. Perhaps, also, we are intrigued by a romance that does not necessarily end in “happily ever after”—as if reality is where nobody quite finds what they want, and what we deliver to each other is usually less than the idealized expectation.
Mia Wasikowska is riveting in this role—her natural beauty is sufficiently toned down to make her a person of interest, but not necessarily the belle of the ball. More like the Cinderella still waiting for her fairy godmother to show up. The PG-13 rating is stretching it a bit—a classic painting hanging in the hallway is considered “an image of nudity”? But in these revealing days, a PG rating would be tantamount to labeling it a children’s movie, which it definitely is not—they’d be bored silly. The adults will have to be willing to postpone cinematic gratification, a deliberate pacing building to an emotional ending. And even then, it’s a decidedly sublime kind of satisfaction.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.