You know the story; orphan girl is tormented by wicked aunt and eventually sent to a home for girls where she is treated equally as awful. Upon maturation girl is sent to serve as a governess for the unwanted child of a stoic barrister. Girl falls in love with barrister but before they can marry discovers the skeleton in his closet – quite literally. Girls flees once again finding refuge with a minister and his sisters until she is once again forced to leave for refusing to marry the man she loves as a brother. Ok, maybe its not exactly your average teen story, especially in Hollywood, but Jane Eyre is a modern role model more worthy of our attention then most of the mainstream media’s offerings. A timeless reflection of a young woman’s search for autonomy, Jane’s journey is not unlike the path that all young women must travel.
Orphaned and left in the custody of her cruel Aunt Reed and her abusive son, Jane learns early on the difference between good and evil as well as the consequences that await a girl who stands up for the truth. It is this commitment to Jane’s integrity and sense of morality that separates writer Moira Buffini’s interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s manuscript from the previous 18 adaptations. Director Cary Fukanaga further distinguishes his film through artful imagery, an emotional original score by and a stellar leading lady, Mia Wasikowska. The love story, between Jane and her employer, Mr. Rochester, the passionate Michael Fassbender, is secondary in this version. Instead, Fukanaga explores Jane’s relationship to solitude and the fine line that differentiates it from isolation. In doing so, he has created a site for young women to recognize the injustices of female adolescence and, thanks to a transcendent performance by Wasikowska, a teen character with traits worth emulating.
The film excels by making the isolation Jane experiences tangible. Opening with her departure from Thornfield Hall, a wide lens follows Jane as she treks across barren landscapes under gray skies, crying and collapsing. Fukanaga returns to similar moments of a solitary Jane in an empty world throughout the film but none of these images relate the unbearable sense of loneliness as the scene in the boarding school where Jane has sent by her Aunt. In order to distract the teacher from beating her only friend, the young Jane allows her writing tablet to drop to the floor and smash. Left to stand alone on a chair in an empty room without food or water the schools sinister headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, warns the other girls, “Do not extend the arm of friendship to Jane Eyre,” deftly illustrating what young women today experience from their “Mean girl” peers.
At Thornfield, where she is employed as Governess to the unwanted child of the master of the house, Mr. Rochester, Jane’s isolation begins to evolve into a more self-governed solitude, as her only options are the elderly Mrs. Fairbanks (the Judi Dench) and the child she cares for. The isolation remains present in her young charge, the French-speaking Adele, for whom language is a barrier. Upon first meeting Jane she confides to Jane “Nobody speaks to us,” Adele utters a resounding truth for generations of unheard female voices.
The absence of choice that has defined Jane’s life and the commendable way in which she perseveres are what is most important for teen viewers to see. From an abused orphan to an alienated governess her life has not been her own, yet to the best of her ability she consistently makes choices that are in her own best interest. When she discovers Rochester’s secret, on their wedding day, she is not persuaded by his urging her to stay because, as he decides, no one know one would have to know. “And what about truth?” Jane asks and then she leaves. She refuses to live his lie or to live his life.
Many would say that Bronte was ahead of her time by creating a story and character that has remained so relatable to generations of women and it’s true. But is also true that the world has not changed as much as we’d like to think. Everyday young women are overwhelmed with images and expectations from that encourage conforming to traditional expectations rather than empowering them towards independence and self-discovery. Hollywood is the epi-center of this struggle where women are outnumbered both behind and in-front of the camera. By re-introducing audiences to an enduring role model, Jane Eyre reminds girls that listening to your own truth is the only way to be truly free.
Cross posted at Sadie Magazine and Love YA Lit.