I was feeling pretty good about my Jane Eyre bonafides when I attended the press screening of her latest adaptation. I’ve read Charlotte Brontë’s book, and have it on my shelf (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” and so on, for 343 pages). And I’ve seen two prior film versions, from 1943 (where Orson Welles’ Mr. Rochester overwhelmed Joan Fontaine’s Jane) and 1996 (where neither Charlotte Gainsbourg nor William Hurt found their footing under Franco Zeffirelli’s unsteady direction). Add to that two stage musicals, a beautifully produced Broadway failure in 2000 and an Off Broadway one that never got off the ground a few years later–not bad. But the production notes informed me that the 1847 novel has a film history that stretches all the way back to 1910, with 18 features and nine TV movies. As audiences flock to Thornfield Hall again and again I’ve barely done the work.
What keeps all those Eyre-heads coming back for more? It’s not like Jane Eyre is Jane Austen–there’s not a chuckle in it, and unlike Austen it can’t be reset in, say, Swinging Sixties London, or outer space. (Rest assured that someday someone will transplant Pride and Prejudice to Mars.) The farthest afield the material has gotten is its uncredited but undisguised use in the moody Val Lewton-produced horror classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Jean Rhys’ earthy prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, which was racy enough to earn its 1993 film version an NC-17. I bet the Eyre faithful hate them.
Those, you see, foreground Rochester’s seamy West Indies backstory, whereas Jane Eyre fans prefer her front and center. I get that, as she is a most appealing heroine, one who on her own terms triumphs over every obstacle put in her path. And the story is like the Raiders of the Lost Ark of miserable circumstances, as Jane is orphaned, treated abominably by her conniving aunt, falls for the passive-aggressive Rochester when she becomes Thornfield’s governess, flees when his secrets manifest themselves, nearly dies, and makes an important choice that returns her to her former haunts. Readers and viewers alike relate to her as she acquires wisdom and compassion, rather than bitterness, during her many trials, and sets herself free. And they adore all those Gothic trappings.
What have the new adapter, Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe), and director, Cary Fukunaga, brought to the table? Not much, which should delight our girl’s admirers. To start the movie on an “action beat” the fim begins with Jane’s desperate flight from Thornfield and her rescue by clergyman St. John Rivers, then goes into flashbacks, a smart way to pack more streamlined story into its two hours. Fukunaga, who directed the fine immigrant drama Sin Nombre, obeys certain immutable laws regarding this type of picture: Judi Dench is in the cast, giving it her benediction in a kindly role, and there is a lovely “period” score, chaste yet stirring, that I immediately recognized as the work of Dario Marianelli, an Oscar winner for Atonement. Otherwise he hasn’t Merchant-Ivory-ed it up with the good china and finery, but gives it a slightly tattered sincerity; while not drab Adriano Goldman’s cinematography doesn’t pop, and the sets, costumes, and real-life manors haven’t been showcased a la HGTV. They’re worn down from life in the pitiless 19th century.
So, too, are the stars, Mia Wasikowska (unscarred from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) and Michael Fassbender, who after his success as an inglourious basterd (I’ve written that so many times I think that’s the way it’s spelled) is in every second movie coming out in the next few months. Fukunaga clearly ordered them scrubbed to a pallor, to look half-dead until their bond reawakens them. It fits with his not-uninteresting notion of the story as a sort of horror movie, with corridor meanderings and attic whisperings that are as much Poe as Brontë. (The trailer uses a wisp of music from Dario Argento’s Suspiria.)
There is, however, a miscalculation: Jamie Bell, 25 and with some of his Billy Elliot charm intact, has made poor St. John Rivers a better match for Jane, someone who might get her off the heath. The film errs on the side of caution in reducing Jane and Rochester’s mutual passion to a dull murmur, and there is an air of dutiful solemnity to the lead performances. No one remembers the guy who got dumped, but Bell’s openness gives him a fighting chance. There’s another reason why Jane Eyre can only be done as a period piece (and don’t give me any crap about spoilers)–when she can finally commit to Rochester it’s because he’s broken-down, an invalid. Oprah and Dr. Phil would have a lot to say about this pathological attraction to wounded men, and none of it good. Is it time for a sequel, Jane Eyre: Smart Woman, Foolish Choices?
As iconic in its own way is Mart Crowley’s taboo-busting play The Boys in the Band, the show that brought homosexuality out of the closet in 1968. Making the Boys documents its unlikely journey to a record-smashing run Off Broadway as Crowley (pictured), Natalie Wood’s gofer in the 60s, despaired of becoming a Hollywood hanger-on and decided to write what he knew, raising the roof with his warts-and-all drama of a birthday party where a male hustler is the present and a lot of acid humor and anguish is on the agenda.
I know the play from its felicitous 1970 film adaptation, for which William Friedkin rejected stars and retained the original cast. (Digression: While most “macho” directors never direct a gay-themed film Friedkin has made two, this and 1980’s Cruising, or two-and-change if you count his sympathetic depiction of lesbianism in 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A.) It wasn’t all that easy to see until New York’s Film Forum revived it in the 90s, as The Boys in the Band slowly recovered from its reputation as a throwback to negative gay stereotypes in the wake of the Stonewall riots and a cultural shift toward acceptance of homosexuality.
Director Crayton Robey gets the heads talking–a cross-section of the gay culturati, including Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, Cheyenne Jackson, and Carson Kressley all have something to say about how the show affected them, and the naysayers in the bunch at least appreciate it for giving them something to transcend (Albee, who helped get it off the ground despite a feeling that straight audiences would laugh at the characters and not with them, regrets not investing in the production, which ran for five years). More touching are the candid reminiscences of the castmembers, a number decimated by AIDS, and Crowley, who never had another theatrical success but is pleased to see it rehabilitated. And a tip of the hat to its senior archival researcher, my friend Rosemary Rotondi, who also worked on the Oscar-winning Inside Job–there is some wonderful footage here. (I’d liked to have hung out with Jane Fonda and Mike Nichols at Roddy McDowall’s Malibu beach house back in the day, as Crowley did.)
The film was completed before a site-specific staging of the play last season, its first New York revival since 1996, received five Drama Desk nominations. Clearly there’s life left yet in the show as Making the Boys returns us to its origins, and tells its story well.
Queue Tip: With Battle: Los Angeles, I Am Number Four, and Mars Needs Moms crashing onto our screens or just plain crashing on impact you might find greater creature comfort in Monsters, a mini-budgeted alien attack movie that is a one-man band effort by Gareth Edwards, who in three weeks shot the film in four countries. The whole saga is recounted in the exhaustive extras that accomodate the DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film–they’re fun to wade through (the Blu-ray, with a razor-sharp image to boot, is particularly loaded) but all that movie-on-a-shoestring backstory threatens to overshadow the actual story, which Edwards brought to life with elbow grease and deft use of computer imagery.
The movie is like It Happened One Night–with screwball laughs taking a backseat to giant alien squid. The beasts, who have hitched a ride on a deep-space NASA probe that crash-landed in Mexico, have inconveniently settled near our border, and northern Mexico has been quarantined as U.S. soldiers defend a wall that has gone up. Andrew, an American photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) in the besieged region, is ordered by his boss to bring his daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) home safely, an assignment both resist. But as the aliens close off their exit routes the two are forced to rely on each other, and they begin to see the threat in a new light.
By economic necessity Monsters couldn’t be a rock-’em-sock-’em flick, though it does deliver a few jarring episodes. (A simple rippling of water is effective.) I’d like to think that Edwards wouldn’t have gone that route if he could have, as the movie uses the opportunity to make more of its immigration metaphor and bring us closer to its two leads (who married in real life). It’s a tense and thoughtful piece, one that’s also been a “hot” title on Netflix Instant Streaming–and it raised temperatures in Hollywood, where Edwards has been drafted to return Godzilla to the screen. Will the second time be the charm for the monster in America? Based on Monsters, I’m more secure.