Heritage Cinema: A Genre Analysis Comparing Jane Eyre (2011) and Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Literary adaptations and costume dramas have been produced on film since the beginning of cinema. British cinema has become infamous in its handling of its own rich cultured history, that the term ‘Heritage cinema’ has been coined to describe them and market them, in particular those being made in the early 1980’s, such as the Merchant-Ivory produced A Room with a View (1985). The costume drama is a vast plane and covers a variety of genres under the heading. Most interestingly is to consider the literary adaptations and how they endure. One of the most recent films to conform to the original term for ‘Heritage cinema’ is Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; the social ‘rom-com’ about the Bennet sisters of lowly means, trying to find love and security. Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, is an independent period film and tells the tale of a strong-willed but plain orphan who takes the position of a governess at the mysterious Thornfield Hall. With such a firm place in Britain’s cultural identity and imaginations, many have attempted to translate the deeply emotive and timeless stories about independent women onto film. In 1944, the first silver screen adaptation of Brontë’s classic appeared, embracing the gothic elements; it is one of the more memorable attempts. Whilst Austen’s novel has seen many reinventions such as the 1940 production, the most slap-stick of them all, starring Laurence Olivier. However there has been a transformation of the use of history and literature in cinema: “…some recent romantic comedies like ...Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), Alex and Emma (2003) or Kate and Leopold (2001) literally rely on their heroines' recourse to period fantasy to fuel the romance in the postmodern present.’” (Ascheid, 2006). Each novel has received an assortment of treatments through film, television, theatre and even musicals with widely varying success. There are few that have stood the test of time, yet the stories have remained current.
Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice are examples of mainstream cinema, produced simply for the enjoyment of its viewer, to become a form of escape. The former is told in a non-linear narrative, a filmic decision by script writer Moira Buffini (2011) to heighten the mystery and intrigue for the audience as the original structure of the novel was chronological. Furthermore, it allows those viewers familiar with the book to experience the story in a new, compelling way. Pride and Prejudice is a simple linear narrative.
The iconography of the British period drama is traditional in both films. Fukunagas film is more historically accurate, taking advantage of the restrictive dress codes to express further the austere society Jane lives in. Wrights’ film, on the other hand, takes certain liberties in its accuracy, choosing rather to modernise the Bennets costumes and under-dress the cast to portray how down-to-earth and care-free their lives are. One could go as far to say that the costumes, thin and light, sexualise the cast; an argument Camden makes in her analysis of this film (2011). The period drama would not be complete without the historical stately homes and Heritage sites which have become an advert for them to encourage the general public to visit the locations. Dario Marianelli, composer for both films, sweeping orchestral scores are perfectly fitting to the genre; a style used repeatedly to help create a sense of the periods being presented. A modern score or soundtrack would, generally, be considered ill-fitting although Marie Antoinette (Coppola, 2006) attempted it with mixed responses. Finally, Keira Knightley and Judi Dench, it could be argued, have become part of the iconography in the British costume drama. Starring in so many, it is common for the audience to associate them with the genre.
“Oh, heavens Lizzy! What a snob you are! Objecting to poor Mr. Darcy because of his wealth! The man can't help it.” - Mr Gardiner
Pride and Prejudice, initially, was a social comedy before it was labelled as a ‘rom-com’. Therefore, it covers a variety of deeper themes. Class divides between the Bennets, Darcy and Bingley are at the forefront of the conflicts in this story and particularly this adaptation which considerably lowers Elizabeth’s social status. Elizabeth at one point begins doubting her own worth to which her uncle replies, “Oh, heavens Lizzy! What a snob you are! Objecting to poor Mr. Darcy because of his wealth! The man can't help it.” (Pride and Prejudice, 2005) Ultimately, love conquers all. However, there is an unfortunate truth beneath the romance that concerns the themes, and binary opposites, of Duty versus Happiness. Not all of those in Wrights film are as strong-willed as Elizabeth and do not have the privilege to marry for love. Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins shortly after Lizzie, her closest friend, rejects his proposal. She is evidence of the times in which she lived, modern audiences can understand her desperate decision, and pity her lack of a happy ending.
“Miss Ingram, she is the machine without feelings. It’s you, you rare unearthly thing, poor and obscure as you are.” - Mr Rochester
The themes of Jane Eyre are darker than those in Pride and Prejudice. At its romantic roots, under the original definition, the binary opposites are Nature versus Society. If Jane and Rochester represent the wild, Gothic, unruly landscape, Miss Ingram, the opposition for a time, is the embodiment of the tight-laced society they inhabit - “Miss Ingram, she is the machine without feelings. It’s you, you rare unearthly thing, poor and obscure as you are.” (Jane Eyre, 2011). With this in mind, modern audiences relate to this desire to not conform and yet still succeed. Her beauty is often remarked upon, whilst Jane is described as plain and a’ creeping creature’. There are aspects of Jane that are incredibly rebellious. Nature fuels Jane; she has no home when she flees Thornfield. So she spends the night on the moors; the ultimate statement that nature will embrace you, the return to beauty and simplicity. “Jane is searching for a home,” says Philip French (2011) in his review of Jane Eyre, “ and the defining of what that home might be for her, an intelligent, independent-minded Christian woman fuelled by ideas of romantic love, sexual fulfilment and equality within the constraints imposed on her…”
Jane has been wronged consistently through her childhood; from the cruelty at the hands of her aunt and cousins to the abuse and neglect at Lowood School. So a major theme within the film is deceit, or as the screenwriter Buffini (2011) would describe it, a fear of deceit. She is constantly in doubt of the volatile Rochester’s affections, unable to conceive how any man could see her as desirable as she finds him. When finally she trusts him, to the end of the scene in which they profess their love, it is short lived. On their wedding day, considered by many to be the day women dream of, it all comes to a gut-wrenching conclusion. He is wed to another. Worst of all, his wife, Bertha, is imprisoned in the attic. With this, comes Freedom versus Imprisonment which have been binary oppositions throughout the narrative. This is evident among the dialogue, in particular Rochesters comment about Jane, “I can see in you the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage, a vivid, restless, captive. Were it but free, it would soar, cloud high.” (Jane Eyre, 2011), One can only assume that at the sight of Bertha, feral and mad, stalking her cell, Jane considers that Rochester would cage her should she become an issue to him. She also must consider what is right. Jane is human and desires to remain with Rochester, but her conscience wins knowing that she will not be able to live with herself should she stay with him unmarried as he so requests.
Both female protagonists are willing to resign themselves to spinsterhood, with little fear so long as their morals stay intact. They shall marry for love or not all as Elizabeth demonstrates, “Only the deepest love will persuade me into matrimony which is why I shall end up an old maid.” (Pride and Prejudice, 2005). A major reoccurrence in the costume drama is the forward-thinking, free-spiritedness of its female characters and with this comes a tailoring to the 21st century audience.
Joe Wright, of the two directors, conforms most to the auteur theory. Pride and Prejudice was his first feature film, having previously worked in TV. After, he worked with Keira Knightley twice more on Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2011). From a working class background, Abeel (2005) reflects that his work seems to contradict the man himself, adapting classic literature that he admits to never having read. He is clearly intrigued by women as nearly all his films have female protagonists. One can go as far to say that he is a feminist filmmaker, who “gets women” (Wellham, 2011). He tends to tackle themes of forbidden or problematic love and independence, creating beautiful, touching films, solidifying his reputation in British cinema.
Cary Fukunaga, on the other hand, would not be an auteur but more of a jobbing director. Jane Eyre was only his second feature. Roger Ebert (2011) describes his debut Sin Nombre as “…one of the best films of 2009. Its story, based on fearsome Mexican gangs, scarcely resembles Jane Eyre, but it showed an emotional intensity between characters who live mostly locked within themselves.” Looking at his filmography, Jane Eyre appears as an anomaly having followed it up with the first series of True Detective (2014) and Beasts of No Nation (2015). There is a similarity between Jane and Rochester’s relationship and the characters in his first film, the suppressed emotions appealing to Fukunagas’ storytelling but due to the few features he has made, it is hard to decipher whether or not he could be considered an auteur. It is interesting to add that both are male directors, taking on female-lead stories, written by women and adapted by women.
Of the two films, Pride and Prejudice received a wider release and relied on more bankable, international stars such as Donald Sutherland and Keira Knightley to make it an exportable product. In doing so, it grossed £14million in the UK alone (Cook, 2007). Meanwhile, besides Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre gathered its home-grown talent in the forms of Jamie Bell and Judi Dench and eventually grossed £5.07million in the UK (BFI, 2012). Many of the performers went on to stardom following their roles. However, Keira Knightley was already considered a star, having a variety of distinguished acting credits to her name. She was associated with the 21st century costume drama, and more followed. With Knightley’s name attached to a project, the audience almost always know what to expect and looking at her filmography, her most popular performances have been in historical pieces. Viewers of her films do not respond as well to her contemporary films, and she has become a marketable commodity around the world for her clean-cut, English-rose persona. Roger Ebert (2005) said of her role in his review of Pride and Prejudice, ‘Knightley's performance is so light and yet fierce that she makes the story almost realistic; this is not a well-mannered "Masterpiece Theatre" but a film where strong-willed young people enter life with their minds at war with their hearts.’ There is a connection between her characters; Knightley embodies the romantic, historical fantasy. The strong-willed woman who fights for her beliefs against the patriarchal society, all the while resisting the oppression of the time period she inhabits (for example, 2008's The Duchess). This fantasy appeals greatly to female audiences. Stars like Knightley appear across many genres and are ways to keep the stories familiar but fresh.
Judi Dench stars in both films and has top billing for her roles. However, she plays incredibly different characters. Over the years, Dench has had a colourful career playing various matriarchs including Queens. She is so ingrained in British cinema, that she has become part of the mise-en-scene of the costume drama. There is a persona attached to her as prim and proper, the epitome of britishness, hailing from Shakespearian theatre. In Pride and Prejudice, Wright makes the most of her cinematic status. As Lady Catherine de Burgh, Dench lives up to her legacy, revelling in the villainous, aristocratic snobbery. So it is interesting that Cary Fukunagas handling of the British Icon is so different. Tim Robey (2011) jokes in his review of the film; “‘Have Judi Dench, won’t make a fuss’ might be his [Fukunaga’s] motto – she’s modestly wonderful as the Thornfield housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax”. Those who expect Dench to command the screen find her exposing her subtler talents, Fukunaga avoids the caricature she could have become and instead directs her towards a performance that is less product and more human.
Pride and Prejudice was released during a colourful year for British cinema with the release of family fantasies Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-rabbit (Park, Box) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell). The British costume drama was fast being overshadowed by action and adventure. Joe Wright’s version took a new approach to the literary adaptation, revitalising the heritage film with his new vision and exciting cast. For Jane Eyre, although making less money, it was fifth in the most successful British independent films of the year, being topped by The Kings Speech (2010) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BFI, 2012). These films have merged into our culture, and influenced out perception of history, romanticising it whilst also informing us, allowing the audience a nostalgic glimpse into the past and to fantasise about the pleasantries and excitement of the old.
However, the reason, possibly, the stories themselves have maintained their popularity is that we live in a society where feminism is a leading debate in news and politics. Sophie Wing (2014) attempts to explore the endurance of Brontës classic, explaining that “For its time, Jane Eyre is a measured but radical protest against Victorian morality and the constraints that women found themselves in… the book is often lauded as a proto-feminist novel…”. We have come a long way from the time when women were considered the inferior sex but the fight many considered in the past, still goes on. The two films are ageless coming-of-age tales that empower the woman rather than degrade her, explore first loves without its protagonists losing their self-respect and it challenges the viewers’ ideas. They conflict with Mary Ann Doanes’ (1988) theory, as summarised by Turner (2001: p.137) that “…women are denied desires of their own, left only with the desire to be the object of masculine desire (the ‘desire to be desired’)...” and instead stress that the professional or emotional accomplishment of its women and “the desire for lasting love” (Ascheid, 2006) are their actual yearnings.
“I can see in you the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage, a vivid, restless, captive. Were it but free, it would soar, cloud high.” - Mr Rochester
Cinema would not be the same without the influence of these two classic tales that have continued to inspire. Pride and Prejudice changed the methods towards telling period pieces in a modest, bright, modern way. Whilst Jane Eyre was a resurgence of Brontë to the screen that proved that the story had not gone stale and that romance and costumes were far from outdated and could still enrapture audiences. Ultimately, I believe the intended meaning of the films, its ideology, is that love and independence can go hand in hand. That staying true to yourself and fighting for what you believe is right will eventually bring you all the best in the world. And the right person will respect that. These are the messages that have spoken to millions of people across generations and this is how it has endured.
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Jane Eyre. (2011) Film. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.
Pride and Prejudice. (2005) Film. Directed by Joe Wright. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.
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Screenshots Pride and Prejudice. (2005) Film. Directed by Joe Wright. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.
Screenshots - Jane Eyre. (2011) Film. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures.
(This article was originally composed 17/10/16 for a project on British Cinema and it's key Genre's)