Tag Archives: Michael Fassbender

Jane Eyre (2011)

After watching Lupita Nyong’o win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave, I became more intrigued than ever by Michael Fassbender’s terrifying, yet understated performance as the drunken, superstitious plantation owner who keeps her character Patsey as his personal, sexual chattel. More specifically, I remembered that he starred as Edward Fairfax Rochester opposite Mia Wasikowska in Cary Fukunaga’s filming of Jane Eyre. Since I missed it back in 2011, and since Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Jane is considered one of the best ever, I decided that I would finally get around to watching it. What would a comparison of the two performances tell us about sex, class power, and race?

In 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender plays a man who has complete power over a black woman. In Jane Eyre, he plays a very similar man who has a great deal of power over one white woman, Jane, and total control of another, his first wife Bertha Mason. Literary critics often use Bertha, who is a creole from Spanish Town in Jamaica, to discuss Charlotte Bronte’s views on race and slavery. Except for a brief appearance halfway through the film, however, and a very intriguing moment where Jane appears to draw her as a black woman, Bertha plays such a small role in Fukunaga’s film that she barely registers as a character. Nevertheless, Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre is such a well-made film, such a rich, well-acted dramatization of sexual politics between a powerful man and his employee, that I’m surprised it hasn’t garnered more attention. One only has to compare it to the 1996 version, and observe William Hurt’s wooden Rochester and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s altogether too open and expressive Jane to appreciate Fassbender and Wasikowska in their roles.

Michel Fassbender doesn’t quite fit the description of Edward Rochester. He was only 32 when they shot the movie. He’s 6 feet tall, but he’s rather slim and refined, not quite the man Jane describes in the book. “My master’s colorless, olive face,” she says, “square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth,–all energy, decision, will,–were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me.” In a purely physical sense, Javier Bardem would have been a better choice, but his pairing with the very delicate, very young — she was 21 when they made the movie — Wasikowska probably wouldn’t have worked in the post-feminist era. It would played a bit too much like one of those old photos of a middle-aged farmer and his barely out of her teens wife. What’s more, Michael Fassbender is subtle enough to translate Rochester’s domineering personality into the kind of man who commands through sarcasm and verbal agility rather than than physical swagger or an outright authoritarian appeal to rank and privilege. His performance makes Rochester’s exchanges with Jane an intense battle of wits between two equals deeply in love with each other rather than a creepy father figure hitting on his daughter’s nanny.

Mia Wasikowska is almost perfect as Jane. There are times when she seems almost plain. At other times, when the light hits her the right way, she looks a bit like Jean Seaberg or a young Chloe Sevigny. Wasikowska, who’s an Australian of Polish descent, seems to have put as much work into mastering a 19th-century Yorkshire accent as Fassbender, who was born in Germany. Not being English myself, I have no idea how authentically they sound like a man and woman in the north of England in the 1830s, but it works dramatically. Indeed, the film is so carefully shot, the cinematography so subtle, and Fukunaga so skilled a filmmaker that physical types are used to build individual characters. One scene in particular, where Jane is eating breakfast with her cousin St. John Rivers and his sisters Mary and Diana, stands out. St John Rivers, played by Jamie Bell, and Mary and Diana, played by Tamzin Merchant and Holliday Grainger, have long, severe faces, and blue eyes. They’re very typical Anglo Saxon types, lit in order to play up their spiritual kinship to their puritan forebears in the early Victorian era. Wasikowska has soft, expressive features and large brown eyes, the kind of face you might see in a painting by Vermeer. St. John, Mary, and Diana feel trapped in the English middle-class. Jane appears deeper, more soulful, mellowed by hard won experience.

Jane Eyre has overcome the harshest, most severe, most puritanically sadomasochistic childhood. When the film opens, Jane, played at age 10 by Amelia Clarkson, is living in the grand manor house of her aunt. She’s being stalked by her cousin John Reed, a weak soft, yet sadistic little bully who slams her head up against a doorknob, and draws blood. Reed, who knows he’s his mother’s favorite, doesn’t expect Jane to fight back. When she does, knocking him to the ground and pummeling him until the servants pull her off, she’s immediately punished, locked inside a room until she knocks herself out against a wall in the pure terror of isolation. She’s then sent to a “charity” school that almost makes Dotheboys Hall from Charles Dickens look like the Sidwell Friends School. Here she undergoes more bullying, this time by adults, but has her spirit rescued by another girl named Helen Burns, who sneaks her bread when she’s being punished and convinces her to love her enemies and act in a Christlike manner. Helen dies of tuberculosis shortly after Jane arrives but she’s made her mark. Indeed, it’s no accident that Freya Parks, the actress who plays Helen, bears a striking resemblance to Mia Wasikowska, and that Amelia Clarkson looks nothing like her at all.

Jane emerges 10 years later, not only an accomplished artist and teacher, but a young woman certain of her identity and at peace with herself. She’s taken on some of Helen Burns’s spirit of Christian love and forgiveness. She’s mastered her anger.

Grow up Jane, or, rather, to be more accurate, a very young adult Jane takes a job at Thornfield Hall as governess to Mr. Rochester’s daughter. Supporters of charter schools take note. If it were 2014, Jane Eyre would be a professional, an elementary school teacher with health insurance and a salary, a member of a union. But this is the 1830s and a female school teacher was little more than a nanny, a domestic, an Au Pair. Jane complains about never having seen a city or talked to men. In 2014, she’d have her own apartment, or, if it were New York, at least a share in one. She’d talk to men in bars, in museums, and at concerts. Most of them would probably be more or less her own age. But at Thornfield Hall she falls in love with a man in his 40s because he’s the first man she meets who isn’t a monster. That he’s Mr. Rochester, and is in fact a monster, if an admittedly sympathetic one, says all you need to know about the world the ideologues of charter schools, libertarianism, and unregulated capitalism want to return us to.

Fukunaga’s movie, in fact, reads Jane Eyre as a practical utopia, a world where a young woman with no status or independent income can somehow enter into a courtship on a more or less equal basis with an old member of the ruling class. Indeed, this is a very romantic, very heterosexual reading of Jane Eyre. Mia Wasikowska may be only 21 and look only 16, but her character is as much the sexual aggressor as Fassbender’s Rochester. When they meet, the sight of her so startles him and his horse that he’s thrown to the ground. The horse, unrestrained male sexuality has overcome the social isolation he’s been locked up inside by virtue of his having locked Bertha, his mentally ill first wife, up in the attic. Later, when Bertha tries to murder him by setting his bed on fire, and Jane rescues him, we see that if the horse is male sexuality, then fire is female sexuality. Jane is part Bertha, part passionate animal, but she’s also part Helen Burns, part Christian saint who sublimates the fires of her lust into love and spirituality. Mia Wasikowska is in fact so good as Jane Eyre her performance comes close to overpowering Fassbender’s Rochester. When they are reconciled at the close of the film, when she, newly rich from an inheritance given to her by an uncle who made his fortune in Jamaica, and he, blinded after his wife makes another attempt to murder him, the power dynamic seems to be all on her side. Rochester is no longer an intimidating patriarch, but a pale, thin, broken man. Patriarchy, Charlotte Bronte implies, imprisons men as much as it imprisons women. Jane, mousy, outwardly submissive, self-effacing, has so mastered herself and her emotions that she’s fulfilled the prediction in the gospels that the “meek will inherit the earth.”

It’s just too bad that Fukunaga didn’t explore Bertha Mason or the source of Jane’s inheritance in more detail. Surely Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey was living a hell on earth somewhere in Jamaica, her unpaid labor making it possible for Mia Waskikowska’s mousy little governess to get her 20,000 English pounds.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

There is a fundamental contradiction in making a film, or any work of art about slavery. The artist, whatever his economic status, is engaged in unalienated, disciplined creation. The slave, on the other hand, not only has the entire product of his labor stolen, but lives under the whims of an arbitrary power. Speak, and you are no longer a slave.

12 Years a Slave bridges the gap by dramatizing the descent of a literate, middle-class, free black man into the hell of involuntary servitude. Solomon Northup, an artist, a musician, lives a pleasant life far above the Mason Dixon Line in Saratoga Springs, New York. After a successful performance at a dance, he’s approached by two men, Hamilton and Brown, who offer him a lucrative job in Washington DC playing the violin for a travelling circus. While it’s not entirely clear why Northup would venture so perilously close to the south with two such obviously shady characters — apparently in the memoir he’s less prosperous than he is in the film and simply needs the money — he ends up drugged, kidnapped, then sold “down the river” to a plantation in Louisiana.

The morning of the abduction is staged with a claustrophobic power. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, after having spent most of the night believing himself sick from alcohol poisoning, wakes up in chains. As he struggles against the wrist and leg irons, and as he looks around him at the dank, windowless dungeon, the horrifying realization sets in. He’s no longer a free man. Everything he was, his ability to read, his self-respect, his pride and manhood are gone. They are not only a cruel reminder of the family that he thinks he’s lost forever, but a threat to his ability to survive. We feel the horror Solomon Northup feels. We see things through his captive eyes. The camera pans up to reveal Capitol Building, 20 years before the Civil War.

Years later, Northup is standing in a circle of his fellow slaves on the plantation of Edwin Epps, a hard, cruel, mentally unbalanced man who has owned him through most of his time in captivity. Someone starts singing the spiritual Roll Jordan Roll. Northup, who has long resisted identifying with his fellow blacks, initially resists singing. He’s not a “nigger.” The language he has adopted to survive, the “yes sirs” and the “no sirs,” still feels bitter on his tongue. He is not “Platt,” the runaway Georgia slave he’s been mistaken for. He’s Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York. Over the years, white men have used singing and dancing as a form of social control. Making the “darkies” clap their hands and sing is a way of training them to be happy, compliant slaves. But now Northup realizes that something is different. Roll Jordan Roll is not the white man’s song. It’s a song of endurance and resistance. He let’s himself sing. For a brief moment, he’s found a new voice as part of a collective. He speaks, not as a  bourgeois but as one of the people.

Sadly, it’s only a very brief moment. 12 Years a Slave is a not a revolutionary film about a slave revolt, but a film about about one middle-class black man’s struggle to hold on to his middle-class identity. It might have been a better movie had Northup killed Edwin Epps and led his fellow slaves into the woods to form a maroon community, but it wouldn’t have been faithful to the real Solomon Northup’s memoir.

Freedom from chattel slavery in 12 Years a Slave is not only about the freedom from involuntary servitude. It’s about the freedom from your baser instincts that comes through self-mastery. If 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s’ film Birth of a Nation gave us subhuman animalistic blacks consumed by their desire for white women, 12 Years a Slave neatly flips the script. Edwin Epps, played by an understated but terrifying Michael Fassbender, isn’t just the villain of 12 Years a Slave, he’s Solomon Northup’s mirror imagine. If Northrup manages to keep his sense of chivalry and self-control in the most difficult circumstances, then Epps yields to his baser instinct. A superstitious drunk and rapist married to an ugly jealous witch of a woman played by Sarah Paulson — no Lilian Gish she — Epps singles out and torments his hardest working slave, a young woman named Patsey. As Patsey goes from a beautiful, vibrant woman to a raped and bloodied shell, Northup looks on in horror. There’s nothing he, a fellow slave, can do. Indeed, he risks his life even by whispering into her ear that she should quickly proceed into her cabin to avoid her drunken, and lustful master.

There is no way Solomon Northup can defeat Edwin Epps. When Epps realizes Northup feels protective of Patsey, he forces Northup to whip her until her skin breaks. If the role of Brad Pitt as a travelling abolitionist, a deus-ex-machina who allows Northup to leave the plantation and resume his life as a free, black northerner has been harshly criticized, there really was no other possible ending. Northup is given the choice between harming a fellow slave or dying. He chooses to live. Epps’s victory is complete. He has bent Northrop to his will, made him acknowledge his power, compelled him to betray his own soul. Northup’s body will escape the south. Part of his spirit will not. As he gets into the horse drawn cart that will take him back to Saratoga Springs, Northup looks back at Patsey. “Solomon,” one of his rescuers insists, “we must make haste,” and, indeed, they do, leaving her at the mercy her cruel master and even more cruel mistress. It is 1853, nine years before Union troops under Benjamin Butler would occupy Louisiana. Solomon is no Moses. He will see the promised land. But his people will not.