If you don’t know, 2011 is going to be the year of Michael Fassbender. He’s got plenty of films coming out — consisting of a leading part in X-Men: First Class, another collaboration with Steve McQueen (Hunger), the lead role in David Cronenberg’s latest where he plays Carl Jung and a large part in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire — in addition to the recently released Jane Eyre. Although I’ve liked him a good deal in the past — good performances in Inglourious Basterds and Angel coupled with two great ones in Fish Tank and Hunger — I’ve never been overly fond of the actor. To give you more perspective in albeit a goofy and inconsequential way, I’ve never personally nominated him for any of his work in my personal lineups. In fact, he’s never really come close.
Though with Jane Eyre – a feature that isn’t quite as good as the sum of its parts – Fassbender has finally worked with a director who — and I don’t mean to take any credit away from Tarantino, McQueen or Arnold — knows how to fuse his performer with his atmosphere to get as perfect as result as possible. Fassbender’s Rochester isn’t so much more an acute understanding of the character or even a more intelligent one than past performers, but how Cary Fukunaga shoots him and essentially works the film around the man’s presence accentuates Fassbender’s great work to a glorious level. Where he looks mysterious and ruminative during his second encounter with Jane, Fukunaga places Fassbender uniquely by a fireplace which casts a fascinating shadow on Fassbender’s countenance. His naturally ponderous look is given greater depth — his looks which could have been interpreted as mere lust or a simple fascination with an inwardly brilliant girl become tenfold more intriguing because the atmosphere the actor is immersed earns our immediate fascination with the man. His dialogue, while rather harmless, becomes a point of interest with the breaks he takes in between words; breaks which are filled with a cryptic score and breaks which he uses to move around in with each subtle movement being its own point of interest. He isn’t just thinking about this woman in a superficial way like many men of the day would – he is overcome with deep thought about the treasures that Jane Eyre possesses, yet his intention with her are an enigma from the start. It’s Fassbender’s natural temperament that hints to viewers that he’s pure of heart and madly in love with the girl, but Fukunaga’s direction veils this and keeps those who are not familiar with Bronte’s text wondering what will happen next. What’s even better about this is the director doesn’t try to confound or aggravate viewers with tireless — or worse, unnecessary — questions about whether or not Rochester’s falsetto is false; it’s an earnest undulation that is key to understanding why Jane is so drawn to Rochester, as well as making the meat of the story (which is undeniably the mystery of the man) far more appetizing.
Unfortunately this is also one of the film’s great drawbacks. While the story of Jane Eyre was of great fascination when first published and for many years afterward, it is difficult to really engage those familiar with typical narrative structure in an intellectual way. Jane Eyre’s emotional makeup is rather basic — she was raised without love, made further emotionally destitute by being brought up in an oppressively oligarchic setting, had love during that time and lost it, and has sought to regain such a complete feeling ever since — and though it is a sincerely drawn portrait of those times and certainly more thoughtful and kind toward the mind of a woman needing love (unlike many romantic features of today) it also lacks a real concern for the titular character. She is enamored with Rochester, yes, and her past is sordid, yes, but for someone who can’t relate to her struggles on a basic level this is just a finely plotted study of a woman’s relationship with love made better by how the director plays up how she sees the one she loves. It gets us in the mindset without actually having the mindset and I think that’s the most important goal in telling a story. Fukunaga does overplay his hand at times — for example, he applies a rigorous backdrop and crude lighting to the scenes where Jane is beaten as a child as most filmmakers to do when they REALLY WANT YOU TO GET THAT IT IS A BAD THING — but for the most part his atmosphere is beautifully baroque, yet disquieting in composition; if not for how he shoots Rochester then for how he manages scenes without a palpable rhythm. The best example of this is the scene where Richard Mason appears at Rochester’s home. That extra hesitation before Rochester says “Lets go to the study” to Mason offsets an eerie, off-beat vibe in their interaction despite the fact that they are old friends. Another great example is the scene where Rochester’s room is caught on fire and Jane saves his life is without any kind of heroics or histrionics, but rather a strong sense that something is amiss. There’s a constant air of mystery looming above all things Rochester, and when he isn’t present Jane is left with one of despondency; one which I feel encapsulates the exact feeling of longing for the one who makes your life complete and an atmosphere which Mia Wasikowska lets overcome her in a delightfully delicate performance of her own. The two transition into each other seamlessly and neither really strives to be what it is. The mystery is a real mystery — not a Hitchcockian manifestation — and the tragedy is tragedy — not a Hollywood tearjerker — and because of this Fassbender’s performance is thoroughly human with the director intelligently skewing him to make him a real world fascination.
Although it is quite early in 2011, I feel entirely confident in saying that Michael Fassbender’s performance as Rochester will go down as one of the year’s finest. To speak with a bit more weight, if this were released last year Fassbender’s performance would be my favorite in the supporting actor category – easily surpassing each of the Academy’s five nominees – and only being rivaled by Dominique Thomas’ performance as Bluebeard in Bluebeard for that “prestigious” honor.