At my doughty northern convent school I only saw the nuns blush twice. Once when watching Sam Neill look with libidinous longing on Judy Davis during My Brilliant Career, screened to the sixth form to encourage us to cheer when Davis opts for a literary destiny over 50 years with the sexy Sam (it backfired horribly: come the close of the film, even the nuns were unable to provide any credible rationale for what felt like the inexplicable error of a madwoman). The other was at Timothy Dalton’s Mr Rochester in an early 1980s TV adaptation of Jane Eyre. As Dalton swept down the stairs of Thornfield Hall, his slim, pre-Bond chest illuminated by a BBC candle, we all began to sweat. Of course if there’s one thing every English nun (and schoolgirl) knows, it’s that a good Mr Rochester is worth a thousand middle-rank Heathcliffes. But a good Jane there has never been – until now.
Mia Wasikowska, a 21-year-old Australian, is the only actress to date whose soul seems to assent when Rochester calls her his spirit, his elf, a creature left by gypsies to tempt him from his banal misanthropy into something braver. Jane – the abused orphan-turned-governess sent to a remote mansion to teach Rochester’s flighty French daughter – is literature’s favourite plain girl, and in some moments Wasikowska does look correctly plain. Pale, pale face spaced-out in a stupor of existential loneliness. Eyes the colour of trodden October leaves. And then, within a moment, the shape of her mouth begins to look like the most beautiful thing you have ever seen and her presence becomes emotionally overwhelming. To hell for once with Rochester! It’s not him running the show here (although the talented Michael Fassbender effortlessly inhabits the character’s years of self-pity and curdled depression).
So much of this Jane Eyre is flawless. Dialogue wisely lifted wholesale or what passes for wholesale from Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel; smaller characters (Judi Dench as the housekeeper at Thornfield) emerging with all their detail and meaning thoroughly worked out; the early scenes at Jane’s vicious orphanage almost grotesquely powerful; the moors (here of Derbyshire) spread out like a whole planet of misery; and the score, which sounds like Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and is never used when people are speaking to boorishly nudge us towards how to feel. But the young Californian director’s greatest achievement is the incredible trick he plays with time: in 120 minutes Cary Fukunaga makes us comprehend the tragic depth and length of Jane’s young life. And he does not fear unusually long exchanges. The scene where Rochester begs Jane to stay with him after their aborted wedding is so gruelling, so wildly complicated and prescient-seeming it comes over as almost improvised, and you are aware that these actors are getting to the nub of the book. Several times you consciously think: “This is it – this is what Brontë was getting at.” The film opened in the US in March and is still playing there, quietly but firmly alive through word of mouth. An American friend pointed out that there it has the reputation of being mysteriously heightened, that you come away convinced that even your hearing has been sharpened to such a degree that you might detect what people are whispering on Madison Avenue. Spot on.
The Way of the Morris is a short, adorable documentary by the British character actor Tim Plester about morris dancing. No, really. Ever wondered where morris dancing comes from? Spain via Africa and then the silk route? Nobody knows. Plester, whose rural Oxfordshire family have long been involved in the form, attempts to find out, and the film is full of hilarious 1970s and 1980s footage of the young Plester dressed as a cowboy or astronaut on high days and holidays, looking on in horror as his father gets stuck in with his bells and sticks outside country pubs. But Plester doesn’t mock much. In fact, his handling of nature in particular here is profound. The camera might be distracted by a passing fox, or a wheat crop about to be pummelled with rain. Many times I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ poem “Pike”: “Stilled legendary depth/it was as deep as England…” The film feels like an instructive and instinctive dip into something mysterious and tense.
Troll Hunter, a hit Norwegian film, is self-consciously made to sit with movies like The Blair Witch Project: stories shot by the protagonists themselves as though they were home movies made in moments of extreme peril. But unlike Blair Witch (terrifying, on first viewing anyway), this is a hoot. Three teenage film students go to document a man reputed to be a troll hunter and discover that not only is Norway simply heaving with trolls, but the situation for their lone, government-employed exterminator is dire. How to dispose of such creatures humanely? How to deal with the bloody paperwork! It’s a marvellous, sly film which, had it managed to be a little more frightening, would have been a masterpiece. At one point, the hungry, delirious students wander the woods looking for berries to eat, like children in a brothers Grimm tale. Within seconds a troll – a hulking, three-headed beast that unlike so much computer-generated imagery appears to have proper weight and depth – stomps past farting and sighing: the moment is so cheerfully perverse.
A Lonely Place to Die has a group of kindly climbers saving a kidnapped girl in the Scottish Highlands. Meant to feel remote and treacherous, the setting feels ruinously as though a group of ramblers might wander past at any moment giving the film a too boxed-in, parochial feel.
Friends with Benefits stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as pals who attempt a no-strings sexual relationship… that ends up all strings, mostly those belonging to a well-worn Hollywood rom-com violin. It’s perky enough, but as unlovable as Timberlake is unlovable. There’s something appallingly lifeless in his smile: as though it were pulled up by hooks. Still, no matter. In a week that comprehends the full force of Miss Mia Wasikowska, even thinking about Timberlake is a little like sitting Daffy Duck next to Garbot.