Tales of Woe

In a telling bit of dialogue about a fourth of the way through Cary Fukunaga’s impeccably directed adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a brooding Rochester (Michael Fassbender) asks the alarmingly beautiful Jane (Mia Wasikowska) to tell him her tale of woe.  You see, all governesses have tales of woe.  They make great stories.

While Jane Eyre targets the refined literary crowd with its tale of woe and romance, the surprisingly adept but still a bit creaky contemporary haunted house tale of woe, Insidious, targets the not-so-fickle horror crowd.

Mia Wisakowska bewitches in Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre.

Nineteenth century feminist literature is not typically my cup of tea.  I’ve not read Bronte’s tale.  Nor have I ever seen any previous film adaptation, and they are legion.  But like the works of Shakespeare, I know the story.  Rave reviews, including a most excellent piece from Wonders in the Dark‘s own Sam Juliano, peaked my interest.  Superb production values, understated but quietly sweeping cinematography, and a note perfect score from Oscar-winner Dario Marianelli help make this a world-class endeavor.

But the greatest appeal of this latest adaptation (apart from the uniformly excellent performances) is Cary Fukunaga’s direction.  Mark my words, he will one day win an Oscar for Best Director and direct a Best Picture winner. If one views his previous film, Sin Nombre, as a contemporary take on Romeo & Juliet by way of a woeful tale of Central American gang wars and illegal immigration, then his tackling of Jane Eyre doesn’t seem as drastic a change of pace as it does on the surface.  

Fukunaga turns the gothic undertones into overtones and paints them boldly on his celluloid canvas.  The wind whispers Jane’s name, horses on gloomy paths through the dark woods are bewitched by fair governesses, hysteric women haunt castle walls both literally and figuratively, and men dash to open windows forlorn and deserted.  Yet it’s balanced by images of sun-soaked gardens and hills in the Springtime, flowers in bloom, and the hint of a smile on Mia Wisakowska’s face revealing she is not all furrowed brow and tortured spirit.  There are hints of mystery, decidedly nineteenth century social mores, and more than enough dramatic huggermuggery that plays out a bit too long…but I doubt fans of the genre will be complaining when Fukunaga displays such brilliance and balance in his composition.

Perhaps it's an hysteric governess haunting the family in Insidious?

A sense of balance would’ve done James Wan’s retread of the old “Is it a haunted house or a haunted kid?” theme a world of good.  In Insidious, the new house inhabited by Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and their three kids is instantly gloomy and melancholy, though they try to fill it with love and their family is a likable and easy one to root for.  Despite being designed as an ode to Poltergeist, Wan never shows us the idyllic nature of the house and its surroundings.  In Poltergeist, everything was cookie-cutter beautiful and sunlit perfect before the gloom and dread took over.  Here, things are instantly dark and off.  In fact, as is a common problem with current horror films, the lighting seems off for the entire film.

Mind you, these are minor quibbles.  You see, Insidious, is a classic tale of woe that is my cup of tea.  Unlike most contemporary horror films, Insidious has a slow build, attempts character development, maintains a modicum of suspense (despite the horrible trailers that spoil one of the two major plot points), and isn’t ashamed of its genre trappings.  Wan and his screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also appears as a Ghost Hunters style tech-geek in the film) borrow liberally from not only Poltergeist but also The Shining, and in some slapdash ways it comes across as a gender-reversed version of the Exorcist without any of the baggage of exorcism films.  The music score and opening credits sequence bring to mind that sense of old-fashioned carnival-like mischief we experienced recently with Drag Me to Hell, and though that wicked dark sense of humor doesn’t find its way through the entire film, sly supporting turns from Lin Shaye (as a caring psychic) and Barbara Hershey (tailor-made for these troubled older mother roles) add to that sense of fun.

It’s interesting to note that this comes from the guys who bequeathed us Saw and the producers of Paranormal Activity.  None of these folks will ever be winning an Oscar.  Though Wan & Whannell still have plenty of faults (including some woeful directorial choices by Wan — i.e. the lighting — and choppy pacing in the screenplay by Whannell), Insidious still shows they have learned a few things and grown as filmmakers.  You don’t always need gimmicks, and you don’t always need gore.  Sometimes you just need some better than average acting, cute kids, creepy sound effects, great ghost and demon make-up and a genuine love for the innate silliness of the genre.

Strangely like Jane Eyre is some ways, Insidious has hints of mystery, decidedly 1980’s social mores, and more than enough supernatural huggermuggery that plays out a bit too long.  When it finally gets to where it’s going, Preposterous might’ve been a better title.  But hell, that’s part of the fun isn’t it?

While these two tales of woe couldn’t be more different, they both provide the best kind of entertainment to the stalwart viewers of their respective genres.  Take them for what they are and enjoy.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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2 comments on “Tales of Woe

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    “Fukunaga turns the gothic undertones into overtones and paints them boldly on his celluloid canvas. The wind whispers Jane’s name, horses on gloomy paths through the dark woods are bewitched by fair governesses, hysteric women haunt castle walls both literally and figuratively, and men dash to open windows forlorn and deserted. Yet it’s balanced by images of sun-soaked gardens and hills in the Springtime, flowers in bloom, and the hint of a smile on Mia Wisakowska’s face revealing she is not all furrowed brow and tortured spirit. There are hints of mystery, decidedly nineteenth century social mores, and more than enough dramatic huggermuggery that plays out a bit too long…but I doubt fans of the genre will be complaining when Fukunaga displays such brilliance and balance in his (her) composition.”

    David, that is truly a brilliantly-written paragraph. Stunning. Thanks so much for the shout-out and am thrilled you had a strong reaction. As I stated this is one film that many dreaded as yet another encore of a familiar story, but you have registered the pictorial beauty and directorial creativity that fueled this great version, as well as acknowledgement for Wasikowska’s superlative turn.

    Bravo!

    Thanks, Sam! — DHS

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    And yes david I quite agree that the film boasted a pitch-perfect score from Dario Marianelli!

    Sam – he really has emerged as one of the best film composers these past few years. –DHS

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