Monday, January 22, 2007

Jane Eyre (2006)

To look at the IMDb’s search results for Jane Eyre, one would think that a director who wants to add to the pile of 17+ attempts is the kind of person who grabs his whip when he hears there’s a dead horse in town. It would be a shame if our current decade concluded without a representative contribution, but fortunately we’ve been saved by Susanna White, Sandy Welch, and a small army of producers marching for the BBC, the organization that might or might not have made the best JE adaptations, but certainly ranks high for making the most. This time, they’ve shelled out something a little different – sometimes confectionary, sometimes modern, but consistently absorbing and convincing. Book purists won’t fall over themselves to praise the adaptation’s liberties, but fans of entertaining and intelligent filmmaking are in for a treat from the BAFTA Award-winning director and crew, not to mention the smokin’ hot (did I say smokin’ hot? I meant very talented) cast.

Director Susanna White and screenwriter Sandy Welch overleap the greatest narrative hurdles of the story – the first-person point of view and the decades-long story time – with startling success. A refreshing achievement of the script is its freedom from voice-over narration. Sandy Welch’s stripped-down adaptation allows actress Ruth Wilson to meaningfully fill four hours with every glimmer or frown in Jane’s eye, non-verbally expressing the emotional upheavals of the story clearly enough. And Susanna White’s direction makes it distinct that, even though she’s not narrating it in voice, this story belongs to Jane.

White marries cinematic technique with photography designed for the small screen, always with an eye for what makes historical drama click: intimacy, escapism, intensity, and sympathy. And neither is she afraid of shaking things up a bit – literally. White introduces some modern techniques of camera movement without breaking the historical mood. Occasionally a Steadycam will directly represent Jane’s point of view, ogling the architecture of Thornfield Hall from a walking perspective as Jane enters it for the first time, or roaming inquisitively over the contents of Mr. Rochester’s library. Other times, small adjustments place the viewer in Jane’s position: after running in from the storm that follows Rochester’s proposal to Jane, the two kiss, Jane draws away to return to her room, and Rochester pulls her back for one more kiss. As she starts to leave the first time, the camera follows her slightly, panning to the right, and when Rochester pulls her back, it’s a surprise to the camera as well, which jerks back to the left somewhat, imperfectly framing Rochester.

Another prominent (and modern) feature is the sparing use of unpopulated establishing shots. In fact, the few static, entirely unpopulated establishing shots often highlight the more ungainly transitions of the series, like the rushed segment encapsulating Jane’s childhood, which plays like an after-school special: “How to Rise Above Abuse In Ten Minutes!” The viewer is rewarded for surviving this awkward and cramped overview by the succeeding intimacy with adult Jane; establishing shots are rarely unpopulated because Jane occupies nearly every one. Her presence makes every moment of the four-hour miniseries feel engaging and relevant without slavish dedication to plot development alone.

This closeness with the camera means that even in the case of a huge transition, all that is needed to ground the camera in space and time is a glimpse of Jane in her environment. When a scene is added to reveal affairs at Thornfield while Jane attends Mrs. Reed, a few seconds of an establishing shot on the exterior of the manor are needed to adjust the viewer to the change in setting. However, when the story transitions back to Jane’s activities, no architectural establishing shot is used, even though the leap is just as great. There is a simple cut from Rochester in the Thornfield scene to Jane, drawing Rochester on her pad. The transition is seamless.

Long, elegant establishing shots in the visualization of Rochester’s stories to Jane (his entanglement with Celine Varens, his account of the West Indies) are the opposite of the awkward transitions in her childhood or in fabricated scenes. Instead of removing her to represent Rochester’s story action, these shots contain Jane, even though she is physically absent – the camera is acting the part of her imagination, exploring the world that Rochester describes. Story-time is also gracefully elided, with some of my favorite transitions in the series: the date on Adele’s schoolroom blackboard is adjusted by three months by the hand of the student herself, and Jane literally turns the page from childhood to responsibility in the leaves of her drawing pad. Other arresting transitions incorporate fade-to-white, a visually interesting technique to heighten awareness and suspense. Because fade-to-white is so unusual (compared with fade-to-black), the viewer is unsure of what to expect in the materialization of the following scene; however, discriminating use of the motif staves off confusion or disorientation.

Of course, the filmmaking isn’t completely flawless, as I’ve alluded to earlier. Sometimes, attempts at capturing the story’s more elusive moments of coincidence and the borderline supernatural fall so magnificently flat that they leave an impact crater in the series’ credibility.

In one such instance, shots of Jane perceiving Rochester’s supernatural call across the moors are intercut with close-up shots of a gushing brook. The series’ brilliant sound mix has culminated in this moment to make the disembodied voice seem real and powerful, with just the right combination of reverb and proximal volume – but surprisingly, it’s the visual presentation that makes the scene a joke. I’m sure the rushing waters were supposed to connote some connection with natural forces and inevitability, but after the second or third recurrence of the image, I could only wonder, “Is Rochester melting?” Or maybe it’s just trouble at the ole mill – more likely than a premonition of glacial thawing.

Another unfortunate accident is the editing of Rochester’s first approach in the series. When Jane and Rochester finally meet, the acting, editing and direction are lucid and engrossing, as usual. But the shots of approach, as the two unknowingly grow closer on the narrow lane, play out like the opening scene of Jaws. Innocent, quiet music accompanies Jane, and I half expect her to start skipping and picking flowers. Meanwhile, intercut shots of thundering hooves are highlighted with brief clips of booming, menacing music. I’m a little disappointed that Rochester hasn’t sprouted a dorsal fin to slice through the fog – then poor Jane would have seen what was coming.

I’m still trying to decide whether the re-envisioning of Jane and Rochester’s famous parting scene was a blunder or a blessing. Exclusively concentrating on Rochester's appeal to physical desire deflates much of the original material’s dramatic dynamic; but on the other hand, Toby (ahem) the new scene is mighty easy to look upon. It isn’t exactly Governesses Gone Wild, but our little Jane doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere fast, either. And who can blame her? But a word in defense of Toby Stephens as Rochester: the poor kid might be cursed with good looks, but at least he has the acting chops to make up for them. There’s been some contention about the selection of a handsome Rochester – whether he has the requisite eyebrow thickness or if he’s thwarted enough around the nose – but please remember that one goal of this adaptation is to ensnare viewers unfamiliar with the original novel. If a handsome, talented young man is what it takes to inspire a new audience to read this beloved classic, I say BRING IT ON.


Angela said...

I love your thoughts, and agree with all of them (I didn't like both fateful-approach and waterfall scenes either). I'm not too well-versed on camera shots and whatnot, so it was interesting to read about those and realize things, "oh, that's right!" :)

marianne said...

Your comments were very insightful especially regarding some specifics that tell me, "another viewing of this very modern adaption is require."

Trini said...

Well said.

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