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.