Mia Wasikowska, the 21-year-old actor who appears in virtually every shot of this beautiful film, is a wonder — and that’s saying a lot. I’ve seen many Jane Eyre adaptations but have always felt that I needed to bring a knowledge of the book to understand the depth of feeling Jane experienced. Whereas in the book we have her narrating her life, it’s hard for actors to convey how much Jane has learned through hard and lonely experience to suppress her feelings, maintain feminine reserve, and quietly inhabit her social rank, at least when with others. Wasikowska, however, has a preternatural capacity to let waves of emotion cross her face while also remaining placid; yet when she allows her true feeling to come forth in words and expression, we see how hard the effort of suppression is — and how much a brilliant mind lies behind that “plain and little” face. Oh my god, it’s amazing.

Here’s what I’ve noticed lately about the serious women actors of her generation (and I leave out the non-serious ones who act in teen comedies): even at their most excellent, they bury themselves so deep in a part that they don’t allow the viewer to see their inner conflicts. Take just two of them who earned so much praise last year (including from me): Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit. Their performances were truly excellent, yet between the nature of those roles — which demanded a high degree of stoicism — and the actors’ relative inexperience they ultimately demonstrate an extraordinary degree of actor’s modesty, especially when surrounded by male actors willing to appear far more vivid, fascinating, horrific. As a result, Wasikowska’s actorly range and bravery is amazing. (Not that I’m surprised after watching her on season 1 of In Treatment, which was so amazing I’d watch it all over again even though it’s got to be one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen.)

When I saw the film with my Dear Friend, she complained about Michael Fassbender (above) as Rochester, saying he drew too much attention to himself by using his eyes so much that it undermined the effect of his scenes. She also mentions that it’s hard to understand why Jane loves him (a shortcoming in the book, too, if you ask me) — and I want to suggest that these two things are related. Certainly Fassbender captures Rochester’s hard, bitter edge and the misogyny I always felt was part of his character; why else would he toy with Jane in that ridiculous attempt to make her jealous by flirting with Miss Ingram? My feeling is that Rochester is a tough role that’s too often played more softly as if he’s a romantic hero rather than a reluctant one; in that respect Fassbender does a great job. (It’s worth noting how much Fassbender has a scary propensity to play these slightly misogynistic roles, after his brilliant and somewhat horrifying turn in Fish Tank.)

More important, I thought the use of his eyes was crucial to the role — and maybe that’s because, for me, the love story is fundamentally about how Rochester truly sees Jane’s inner character, her intelligence, her unexpected strength, her soul. Even though she feels she’s concealing all of it behind that stoic mask she’s learned to wear, Rochester sees early on that she’s exceptional — no wonder the story works so well as a romance (don’t we all want to be seen for our true selves?). I want to suggest that we see through his huge, cruel eyes how much Rochester really doesn’t have control over his feelings, and that he wrestles with his own demons, his own tendency to bury himself in self-pity and hardness rather than open himself up to feeling for others. Jane expresses her emotion through her increasingly visible efforts to suppress it; Rochester expresses it through his increasingly uncontrolled eyes that don’t want to believe there could be such a woman for him. So, Dear Friend, I need a response to this claim!  

A final note about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s directing and Moira Buffini’s screenplay, which captured the intensity of gothic horror and the passion of feeling so well. Having loved Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009; and what a different film!) I knew this would be something to see; and it’s no easy feat to wrangle all of a 19th-c. novel into a neat 115 minutes. They achieve it by privileging the central tale of Jane and Rochester rather than her childhood and her time with the Rivers siblings — and I think it’s wholly successful, even for those who haven’t read the book and don’t know the litany of horrors she experiences before coming to Thornfield Hall and meeting Rochester. It never felt Harry Potter-ed, that is, like one of those excessively literal adaptations that labors to hit every key scene of a novel. It was scary, heartbreaking, dark, beautiful, compelling, and I can hardly wait to see it again.

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Remember being 15? Everyone seems like such an asshole, and no one’s more of a douche than you. Interactions with your mom amount to screaming matches. Seems like nothing’s going to get better, either. Your hair won’t do what you want and your body’s all over the place — childish in parts and alarmingly womanly in others. Your entire world seems small, stupid. If you’re lucky, you have one thing you’re good at. In Andrea Arnold’s spectacular Fish Tank, Mia (Katie Jarvis)’s one thing is hip-hop dancing. She sneaks upstairs in their depressing council estate flat to an empty apartment, turns on the music, and works on perfecting her moves. I can’t remember seeing a film like this that shows us the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old so intimately — we’re always with Mia, sharing that lonely, locked-in feeling with her, never looking at her. It’s an extraordinary way to put the viewer into a 15-year-old’s head.

Things shift when suddenly her very young single mother Joanne has a new man in her life — Connor (Michael Fassbender), an Irish guy who just doesn’t fit into the council estate world. He’s so cute, has a middle-class job and a practical man’s car, and expresses such paternal ease and a light touch with Mia and her little sister: what’s he doing with the trashy, foul-mouthed Joanne? And here’s where Arnold captures Mia so perfectly. She doesn’t know whether she wants to flirt with Connor or turn him into the father figure who’d give their lives more stability; she wants both, of course. Because we see everything through Mia’s eyes, we wonder whether Connor is sending mixed signals — and we’re a bit alarmed to realize that we hope he is, even as a sense of unease grows about this seemingly nice guy.

When you’re 15, anything can happen to you — and Mia’s clearly on that precipice. Teenage pregnancy and/or rape are more likely in her precarious world than education or another path to mobility. When she looks at her improbably blonde, half-dressed, alcoholic mother, we know a lot of the venom between them results from the fact that they both know Mia might follow that path too. That’s why her hip-hop dancing is so evocative. It might be private, almost secret, but it gives her power and control over her lanky 15-year-old limbs. Yet being a good dancer gives you no marketable skill. “You dance like a Black,” Connor tells her when he catches her dancing in their miserable little kitchen, she in her pyjamas and he shirtless, unknown. “It’s a compliment,” he clarifies, creating a little bit of confidentiality between them. She scowls, flattered and invaded and attracted. Could dancing be a way out for her? Is she still dancing for herself, or is she dancing for him? When Connor plays Bobby Womack’s haunting, 1960s mellow soul cover of “California Dreamin’,” it means too much to Mia — it becomes their song.

Americans don’t like to watch films about the poor, proclaiming them “depressing,” yet these stories are so real that it seems Katie Jarvis herself is living this life. She had no acting experience when she was discovered for this part fighting with her boyfriend on a train platform. She’d already left school without a diploma, was unemployed, and learned all the dance moves during the filming, giving them a sweet uncertainty. By the time the film was screened at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize, the first of many awards and nominations for the film) Jarvis was pregnant, limiting her capacity to take more roles.

When she was interviewed by UK’s The Guardian Jarvis explained her life with telling caution and honesty: “Whereas before I was doing nothing all the time [the film] made me learn that I could do things if I wanted to do it. It was hard, but it was fun and rewarding. Now I want to make the most of it. It shows that you don’t have to go to drama school to get into it, but I think I was one of a kind, I don’t think anyone else will get picked off a train station.”

Whether or not she gets more parts, she’s extraordinary in this film, which is easily in my Top Five of last year (it was released in a very limited way in the US in 2010) and one of my favorites of the whole decade. It’s so much better than An Education, which I really liked (see here for A. O. Scott’s reasons for agreeing with this point), and probably even better than Winter’s Bone which I keep singing about. I keep this blog for the hope of seeing films like this and spreading the news about them. It’s streaming on Netflix now — watch it and feel this filmmaker’s amazing vision of what it means to look through the eyes of a 15-year-old. And let’s keep watching for more from Andrea Arnold and Katie Jarvis.