This Kind of Movie

“Can I tell you something that’s going to make you livid?” my roommate said as the score swelled. “I hate this kind of movie.”

He’s right on both counts: Rebecca is not for everyone — it’s old-fashioned, melodramatic, inconsistent, formalist. Yet the suggestion that the 1940 Best Picture winner is anything less than a classic tends to piss me off...

The real relationship is the fearsome triangle of our heroine, Rebecca, and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Played by Judith Anderson as though channeling Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Danvers is an indelible villain — just try not to get the creeps as she shows the shaking Fontaine Rebecca’s mausoleum of a bedroom, brushing the girl’s face with an old fur and lovingly patting the dead woman’s underwear. 

From here the two face off in a thrilling psychological battle. The new bride directs the housekeeper to dump Rebecca’s old crap (“I am Mrs. de Winter now,” she says); Danvers exacts retribution by tricking her prey into a dress matching one Rebecca wore. The sight sends Max into a rage and Fontaine into gag-sobs, which Danvers capitalizes on by opening the window and hissing out what amounts to a witch’s spell, capturing Fontaine in a trance: “You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?” If Rebecca , eccentric and exciting, is “this kind of movie,” that’s fine by me: like Mrs. Danvers’ chilly whisper, it’s almost a form of magic.

Though less fantastical, Jane Eyre is still a tough nut to crack. Twenty or so screen adaptations precede Cary Fukunaga’s stab at Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. But with talented Mia Wasikowska in the lead, he captures Eyre’s balance of propriety and vigor...

This is, as you might expect, a difficult book to film, what with the terrible childhood and the potential mistress and the harsh secrets. What Fukunaga does well — sexual tension, misty moor-scapes, shadow houses where flames hide from darkness — he does impeccably. Certain of the other elements, like the wan interlude with St. John Rivers (boring!), seem shoved into what’s left, there to get us from Point A to Point B. What tips the balance is Wasikowska as Jane, fierce but never vicious, staring down a mean life and making something of it. She is not a “machine without feelings,” as she says in her most powerful monologue — she’s a force to be reckoned with, and Jane Eyre is all the better for it.

Excerpted from today's "Now and Then" column, now posted at Thompson on Hollywood.

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