Tuesday, May 10, 2011

TWO STOLID FEMINIST HEROINES: "JANE EYRE" AND "MEEK'S CUTOFF"

I went to see "Jane Eyre" (10) with low expectations; I had yet to see a film adaption that captured what I found so compelling in the novel I loved best from childhood. The current version, with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, does not disappoint, faithfully capturing the novel's smoldering passion, grief, and valor. If you've not read it, this film may inspire you to do so.

Like only the best period films, this one transcends the sense of modern people dressed up in self-conscious period costumes. Jane's world looks actually lived in, conveying what it must have felt like to run in a corset and petticoats and ridiculously uncomfortable shoes, or to travel by buggy across large expanses of the English moors, or to spend many of one's waking hours in dark spaces lit only by fire and candlelight. Social conventions that seem strange now are believably portrayed in all their intractability--the rigidity of Jane's orphaned circumstances, her dependence on the benevolence of her cruel aunt, the confines of her status as Rochester's hired subordinate. The best period films (about Victorian times especially) manage to convey social mores that now seem strange and needless in such a way that one reflects on which of our social conventions also qualify as self-imposed prisons.

The most significant and inescapable prisons here involve Rochester, who hires Jane to serve as governess to his ward. Fassbender (always compelling, and here especially so) makes sense of Rochester's gruffness, his imposing and mercurial moods. This man is trapped, has pulled out of meaningful engagement with life, convinced that real happiness and human connection is to be denied him. He toys with his money and social position only to acquire experiences that divert and distract him from his profound isolation.

In the world of this film, then, it is apparent why Rochester finds Jane so compelling. From earliest childhood, she displays a fierceness and a penchant for identifying the truths that are covered over by privilege and social convention. She is brave, declaring, at the moment of greatest childhood loss at her aunt's hands, that people view the woman as good when really she is hard-hearted. Jane speaks this truth with such clear-eyed precision that her aunt reacts to it years later as though the statement had been a curse. And though Jane spends the rest of her childhood denied all comfort and affection and devotes herself to acquiring the discipline necessary to withstand suffering, she retains her longing for beauty and genuine love, as well as her capacity to name what is true.

Thus, from the moment of their first encounter, Jane, though intimidated and often confused by Rochester, asserts herself, conveying a respect (for him as well as for herself) that goes beyond convention. He responds to her innocence, her genuineness, her unswerving courage, her piercing intelligence. He comments on the distance between the self each of them projects and their true natures, and with increasing directness identifies their essential equality, as Jane does herself. "It is my spirit that addresses your spirit," she says in a moment of anguish, scarcely recognizing or daring to hope that his spirit seeks to make a similar address but from a place of even deeper anguish.

This retelling is greatly helped by Moira Buffini's intelligent screenplay, director Cary Fukunaga's fresh eyes for the soul of the story and his attention to period detail, and the three performances at its center. The dialogue brilliantly renders a sense of daring in the conversations between Jane and Rochester, even as the language of each remains within the confines of Victorian restraint, and Buffini has cleverly begun the story at the end, with Jane's exile with the austere St. John Rivers, framing the story from Jane's lowest point in a way that makes sense of what went before. Mia Wasikowska perfectly captures Jane's gravity and fierceness, and Fassbender Rochester's tormented longing. And Dame Judi Dench is a perfect Mrs. Fairfax, simple and kind-hearted.

One comes away profoundly affected by the archetypes of the novel, its sense that real love requires vision, creativity, and courage. Love also requires self-respect, something Jane begins with and then acquires more of through the hardship of loss. She tells Rochester at a critical moment, "I would do anything for you, sir--anything that was right." Later when a desperate Rochester suggests a solution to their dilemma that is too far outside what social convention allows, she breaks away with the desperate comment, "I must respect myself." Her time with St. John Rivers helps Jane to move to a more essential sense of right within her circumstances, and to recognize that not all forms of self-denial qualify as right. That transformation continues to inspire me.

"Meek's Cut-off" (9.5), Kelly Reichardt's haunting, acutely observant film about lost pioneers, is more enriching than it is entertaining; in fact, some may find it a slog. But it rewards the patient and the curious with rich insights into human nature, the dynamics of power, and what life was really like for people, and especially women, on the pioneer trail.

The film follows three pioneer couples in 1845, who apparently have wasted the money they spent on a guide to lead them to the Willamette Valley. They have been wandering for weeks longer than Stephen Meeks told them to expect, and their growing dread is palpable. Being lost is unsettling enough in a car driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood--but as this film depicts in excruciatingly concrete detail, it's another matter entirely when you are mostly on foot in a huge open desert where days might go by without any sight of water and where all your belongings are stuffed into rickety wagons. As days drag on and family heirlooms become just weight to be jettisoned, Meeks shows no signs of fear or contrition, remaining ever quick with trail wisdom and tall tales of his own exploits.

Meeks' bragging becomes increasingly insufferable to Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), a newly married young woman whose husband, Solomon, appears to be the de facto leader of the group. She and the other wives are not privy to the conversations in which the men decide what measures the group will take; we, and they, only overhear muffled tones from a distance. But Solomon keeps his wife informed of what the men are up to and even seems to value her input.

When the group members encounter a lone Indian, they are thrust into the dilemma of what to do with him. Meeks wants to kill him, but Solomon recognizes that the Indian may be useful. Everyone fears the stranger, with whom communication is virtually impossible, yet the film nicely straddles the prejudices and ignorance and misunderstandings that would surely have characterized how white people would have perceived an Indian in 1845 with our regretful current perspective, holding both in tension. The encounter with the Indian becomes the locus of a power shift from Meeks to Emily, who experiences an awakening of sorts occasioned by her dawning sense of the truth about Meeks, the Indian, and the realities of the group's situation. She finds her power in standing up not only to Meeks but to the limits of her own understanding, acting on what she knows and standing up in the face of what she doesn't know.

Unlike so many period films, this one (like "Jane Eyre") looks lived in. Director Kelly Reichardt has the patience to depict the painstaking realities of life on the trail, with its unrelenting dust and exertions and tedium and long silences filled only by the sound of creaking wagon wheels. She has assembled a stellar cast, most notably Rod Rondeaux as the enigmatic Indian and Williams, who captures the subtle shifts that characterize a genuine transformation and conveys Emily's contrasting qualities, her weariness and her acuteness. Reichardt's patience pays off in a revelatory vision that places pioneer experience and women's experience in the larger context of the human struggle. What does it mean to be lost? How is power gained, lost, and shared?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am going to try to find some of these and watch them. You are making my watch-list longer...(Kawn)

Onedia said...

Thanks for that review of Jane Eyre, I too have never seen a film that did justice to the novel from one extreme to another...I was determined to avoid this one but now have altered my thinking. I seldom venture to the big screens these days prefering the absence of the disturbances of other people so I will wait for video release .

I came to your site because I heard about your reviews from my amazing and much loved son by marriage, Kawn and Lydia, who is the most interesting and darling person I know.

I intend to read more of your reviews.

O.