Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre: It’s All About the Angles

One of the things I notice in young actors is that while often they are emotionally available, they do not know what to do with their bodies. This may be more noticeable onstage, where you see the full body at all times, but it affects film work as well. I’ve talked about this before, with “closeup actors”, actors who wait for the closeup to do the heavy lifting. When seen in long shot, they either disappear, or their gestures are unspecific, not well chosen or thought out. The character is not illuminated. Now, being able to do an effective closeup is not an easy thing (you try being open and raw with a camera one inch away from your face), but creating a full character, who seems to live beyond the frame of the cinema screen, is very difficult. That’s why you don’t see it often. By talking about “gesture”, it may seem that I am talking about a very deliberate type of acting, more theatrical, but I am not. Roger Ebert, in his review of Silkwood, gives a perfect example of the kind of gesture I am talking about:

Silkwood is played by Meryl Streep, in another of her great performances, and there’s a tiny detail in the first moments of the movie that reveals how completely Streep has thought through the role. Silkwood walks into the factory, punches her time card, automatically looks at her own wristwatch, and then shakes her wrist: It’s a self-winding watch, I guess. That little shake of the wrist is an actor’s choice.

A gesture like that works on the audience subconsciously. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t, but you will certainly get the character. Gestures like shaking your wrist because you know that your character would probably have a bum watch is the type of thing that separates the men from the boys (women from the girls) in this business. On the flip side, an actor can be too facile in these kinds of things, and those actors want for damn sure to know that you NOTICE all of the work they have done. What’s the use of working on your character so hard and making all of these choices if the audience doesn’t get how hard you, the actress, has worked? Meryl Streep is obviously beyond those concerns, and while her ease with different accents usually gets the most attention – it is those tiny character elements I treasure her for. She is so damn OBSERVANT about other people. And she never seems to want to be congratulated for it. Her attitude is (and remember, she’s a genius, so she skews the sample): “Well, that’s the job, know what I mean?” What IS the job except playing make-believe as hard as you possibly can?

The more earnest let-me-show-you-all-the-hard-work-I-have-done actors don’t know how to “play make-believe”, and so their work suffers, you can see the gears moving. There is no ease. My favorite kind of acting is what I call the Bang Bang You’re Dead school of acting (I go into it in detail here). Word to the wise: This type of acting should be left to the professionals. Children do it automatically. Children play cops and robbers in the backyard, one kid holds up his finger as a gun and shouts, “Bang Bang You’re Dead!” and the other child automatically swoons to the ground in a brilliant death swan-dive. No thought of HOW to do it, no deep pondering of what it REALLY feels like to get shot, no need to do eight months of research. The point is the make-believe. Die. NOW. The child does. Adults are supposed to leave such games behind, but actors, of course, never want to give up those games, that’s the whole point of life. But most actors need to re-remember how to play Bang Bang You’re Dead. That’s why there are such things as acting classes, or relaxation techniques. Much of it is nonsense, but much of it is essential. Relaxation and concentration help you let go of the adult side of you that has forgotten how to play. Relaxation and concentration help you say Yes with more ease.

The geniuses, naturally, need very little of any of this. Because they never forgot how to play Bang Bang You’re Dead. They don’t need to “remember” anything, they never forgot it. (There’s that great quote from Stella Adler about Marlon Brando: “Sending Marlon Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”)

Occasionally I go see thesis projects of young actors in graduate programs. It’s a treat when you see someone who just knows how to be onstage. They know what the job is. Many young actors don’t. They think it’s about emotions. (As my great acting mentor used to say, “Remember, the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.”) Many teachers lead young actors to believe that if they can bring up emotions, then they can act. And yet these young actors, who can cry, and weep, and rage, don’t know how to cross the stage and look like they belong there. They don’t know how to counter (I could write an entire paper on the Stagecraft 101 importance of countering – we had it drilled into us in undergraduate college acting classes. Great, if you can cry, but if you don’t counter? You look like an amateur, you’ve got nothing.) Stagecraft needs to be taught. All of that technique needs to be invisible, and accessible to you automatically. It takes practice.

This is the nuts-and-bolts of acting. But the other thing, which is how I started this post, is knowing how to inhabit your body, and make the character visible to the audience. Without seeming like you are telegraphing, with a series of tics and deliberate gestures. Maybe because of the dominance of television, with its reliance on closeups, and the medium of film, where the story is broken up into tiny pieces, many actors go straight into television without theatre training. When you’re in your closeup, you need to be able to bring up the emotion required of you. But the “waiting for your closeup” school of acting can also generate lazy actors, or actors who have never had to build a character, through gesture and posture and mood and shape. But when you’ve seen a great live performance, so much of it is in the full-body. I remember Natasha Richardson’s wildly flapping arms during her final rendition of “Cabaret”, the adrenaline and panic of the character breaking out of the cool flapper exterior. I will never forget it. I remember Christine Ebersole’s delicately drooped shoulders in Grey Gardens, her hands cupped around her face dramatically. I was in the front for Natasha Richarson, and I was in the back for Grey Gardens, but in both cases, the gesture was big enough for the cheap seats. I remember Kathleen Turner’s heartrending scream of “Oh, NO!” during Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as she fell to her knees, clumsily, awkwardly, the complete shattering of a woman. It was one of the most awful (as in brilliant, nearly unwatchable) moments of live acting I’ve ever seen. I will remember her gestures in that moment until my dying day.

It may seem that those things are hard to “get in” to film, when you’re shooting out of sequence, and a lot of it is chopped up … so where do you “get the chance” to show your work? But, as Roger Ebert observed, shaking your wrist to jumpstart your watch is something you do in long shot, it’s something that’s not made into a “bit”, and through such small detailed moments, Meryl Streep has built her character, meticulously, with great care. And once the camera is rolling, she no longer needs to think about it. She is not deliberating about any of it. Once the camera is rolling, her work is already done, so she is free to enter the Bang Bang You’re Dead zone.

That’s the zone you want to be in.

Mia Wasikowska is a young actress. I saw Jane Eyre and The Kids Are All Right in close proximity to one another. I actually didn’t know it was the same actress until I looked it up. And in The Kids Are All Right, she was effortless. And in Jane Eyre (my review here), a period piece which, in worst case scenarios, can bring about a kind of stuffy preciousness, she is also effortless. And yet completely different. She has done her work before the camera starts rolling. The costumes help. The importance of a good wig and a good corset cannot be underestimated. Because of the restrictions of Jane Eyre’s wardrobe (and the restrictions of all womens’ wardrobes at that time), her shape is affected. She is erect, angular, and tense. There is no difference between the wardrobe and the emotional effect of the character. Jane Eyre is trapped in a life she did not choose, and yet she is the ultimate survivor, in terms of a healthy vibrant sense of self-respect and autonomy. It is one of Jane Eyre’s most marked characteristics. Life batters her about. She takes some harsh blows.

In The Kids Are Alright, Wasikowska is breezy and intelligent and American (which she is not, she’s Australian). A modern hip kid. Innocent and curious about sex. With two overprotective parents. Starting to push out on her own, but with the support of a good family. If that was all she had done, I may have thought she was good, and perfect in the role, but nothing to scream to the heavens about. Her Jane Eyre changed the game for me entirely. She is smileless and grim, and there are moments when she literally vibrates with emotion. When seen in her nightdress, she seems childlike, she looks adolescent (which Jane Eyre is supposed to be, almost. Still a teenager, anyway.) Her face, in some angles, isn’t even attractive. Jane Eyre is supposed to be plain. Mia Wasikowska, a beautiful young woman, looks plain. Sallow, pale, with serious heavily lidded eyes. In the couple of moments in the film when she smiles openly, it is so free and joyful that it takes my breath away, because of its rarity. I worry for her. She is so little, so fragile. Encased in corsets where she can barely breathe. Women fainted all the time back then. No wonder. Nobody could fucking breathe. Because of the tight corsets, her 21st century shape has completely altered into an entirely 19th century shape. But Wasikowska doesn’t let the costumes run her performance, she doesn’t rely on them (as is often the case in period pieces: “I put on a bonnet, therefore I am in the past! Voila!”). They inform her, work on her, and there are times when her shape is so specific that I cannot imagine it is not a deliberate choice – either on her part or on the part of the director. There are a couple of moments when she literally seems to step into a portrait on a wall. She fuses her shape with the imagined reality and world of the character. Jane Eyre is unconscious of “being from another time” because, of course, to her she isn’t from another time. She is in her own time. Wasikowska does not seem modern. She holds a candle like she has been holding candles since she was 8 years old. There are moments, many moments, where she puts her hands on her tiny bound-in waist, arms akimbo, and it gives her a strangely peaked look, severe, like a scarecrow in her own image. The elbows jutting out, the hands clasping the tiny waist (fingers almost touching) gives her an entirely period-specific SHAPE. Nobody stands like that now. It is not a gesture that one would associate with NOW. There could be many things working on her to create that gesture. As I said, the costume suggests it, and actors are the most suggestible people on the planet. You put a crazy hat on an actor and the actor will automatically start to feel crazy. If you are wearing a bone-corset, your rib cage cannot move, you cannot move freely. Your breath will remain high and shallow. Putting her hands on her waist, jutting her elbows out, looks like a steadying posture, a way to brace herself for life. It is also a good way to relax. Letting your arms dangle would be uncomfortable if your torso is encased in tight bone; without the ability to move freely, your arms would be useless. You don’t have many choices. Putting your hands on your waist may not be the most delicate or ladylike of poses (none of the other ladies in the movie stand that way), but Jane Eyre is not delicate or ladylike. She is a lady, but she is strong and self-reliant. She is self-possessed, and maintains her boundaries, even when everyone around her tries to encroach upon her (either cruelly, like the headmistress at the school, or kindly, like Mr. Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax). Mia Wasikowska’s gesture is part of the character: I might even say, even with her exquisite emotional work, that it IS the character. I noticed it immediately on my first viewing. With all of the memorable scenes, and with the smoldering sexiness of Michael Fassbender, what I remembered from the movie after I saw it the first time was her staunch tiny little figure, elbows jutting out in triangles, hands gently placed on the bunching out of her skirt. She stands over the globe with her young French charge, and for one breathless moment, nobody moves. It is a portrait. On a wall. It is a vision of another time. Jane Eyre, whose nature was created to be soft and loving and supportive, has not found a world that encourages her essence. So she has learned to cover it up. She does so by jutting her elbows out, creating a stark figure of all angles. Her soft heart and womanly nature must be hidden behind those angles.

As an actor, you need your emotions to be fluid and available. But you also need to explore your angles and the shapes they can make.

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22 Responses to Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre: It’s All About the Angles

  1. allison says:

    sheila, i love this piece….a thought provoking window into the minutia of a fully inhabited performance.

  2. sheila says:

    Thanks, Allison! Have you seen jane Eyre yet? Next time we do a sleepover, I’ll bring it. Think you would love it.

  3. Paul H. says:

    I could read your writing on acting all day. You convey the craft (and graft) of acting so well to those of us who know nothing about it. I’ve even found myself watching certain actors really closely to see how they do it. I haven’t a clue, by the way, but I’m getting better through reading your essays.

    There has to be a book in this. A series of essays by you on great acting. Looking at a particular performance in general and then deconstucting one or two key scenes. Definitely on my wish list.

    I’ve avoided this Jane Eyre because I am still in love with Ruth Wilson’s performance in the last BBC adaptation a couple of years back, but I will have to watch it now.

  4. april says:

    Oh. My. God. What an astonishing performance! And what a beautiful film; every other frame looks like a Rembrandt or Vermeer!

    When I was a kid, “Jane Eyre” was for me what “Little Women” seems to have been for so many other baby dykes… I’ve seen at least a half-dozen film adaptations, and this is the first one that really feels to me like it’s about *Jane* and not about Mr. Rochester or gothic melodrama for its own sake. I don’t know enough about acting to have named it myself, but I think you’re exactly right about the reflexive *physicality* of her performance being part of what makes Wasikowska so special. Looking back, that is also a huge part of what I loved so much about her portrayal of Sophie in the “In Treatment” series — how in every gesture she absolutely nailed the combination of vulnerability and bravado that is so typical of young women who don’t yet realize that they’re being abused. She is such a natural!

    I think Mia is *by far* the best young actress working today — I mean, really, who *else* would weather this kind of comparison to Meryl Streep??? And I think she’s making excellent choices, too. I can’t wait to see “Restless;” call it a hunch, but I’m betting that she and Gus van Sant will find a way to transform the whole dying teenager thing into something that’s not a cliche.

    Fassbender was okay, but I don’t think his character was nearly as well developed. I know Mr. Rochester is supposed to be brooding and all, but I was never sure whether we were supposed to see him as evil or manipulative or tragic. I sure didn’t see anything that I’d think would appeal to a girl like Jane…

    And poor Mrs. R… you really *must* read “Wide Sargasso Sea!”

  5. sheila says:

    April – I am so glad you saw it. I agree: absolutely gorgeous-looking movie. I liked Fassbender a lot – although, as I’ve mentioned, leaving out the incident where he dresses up as the gypsy woman denies the character most of his truly bizarre aspect. Like: this is a man that would do that. He is so in love with Jane that he does manipulate her, and encroach upon her boundaries – insisting on intimate communication even before he declares himself. He NEEDS TO BE CLOSE. Poor guy. And in her, he has met his match. Everyone is afraid of him. She is not. She meets him toe to toe. Some of the deleted scenes on the DVD (did you watch any of them) are fascinating – especially the one scene where Mr. R tells Jane about the French opera singer he had fallen in love with – such a sordid story – but the way he tells Jane, he does it with an offhanded air, assuming she won’t be offended. He needs to tell her the story. But imagine Jane’s response … she who has barely spoken to a man in her whole life. She who is completely inexperienced in worldly matters. But alas, they did not film the Mr. Rochester-in-drag sequence. I am so curious as to why they left it out. Mr. Rochester is a weirdo. Who would do something like that?? It makes him even more desperate. The man is trapped – in a horrible life – and is willing to lie to get out of it. He actually asks Jane to live with him AS his wife, because who will care … That takes balls. And yet I feel for the guy.

    I am so thrilled you saw it and loved it too. I agree: Mia W. is definitely one to watch and I am looking forward to seeing what else she can do.

  6. sheila says:

    Paul – thank you! This is the kind of writing I love to do most! I’m very proprietary towards Jane Eyre, because of my feelings of the book – and I really loved this adaptation. Not only does it look beautiful, but it does seem to capture the weird passionate vibe of the book.

    I do wish it had been made clearer at the end that Mr. Rochester actually HAD been calling for her when she “heard” him across the moors. As it is in the film, it seems more like she’s imagining it, or she just misses him or whatever – as opposed to what it is in the book: that he CALLS for her, and she HEARS him.

  7. BB_Brune says:

    To be perfectly honest, yes, Mia was stunning, delicate, upright, beautiful angles and she worked very well against Judy Dench. However, she was completely wooden with Fassbender, dead in the eyes, she was reciting her lines, and lacked Jane’s inner strength, which shines through even though she remains subdued (proper to her station)… and in the end it fell flat. She had no chemistry with Rochester, so what’s the point?
    Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson killed it, they achieved perfection in the 2006 miniseries.
    Beautiful cinematography though.

  8. sheila says:

    BB – to quote my friend Mitchell, I “totes disagree” with you. I thought they had intense chemistry, never more so than in the scene after the fire, where the tension between them, and the desire to kiss one another – was so palpable you could cut it with a knife. I loved their chemistry. They are two damaged souls, drawn to one another and his great line about the thread in his chest connected to hers I thought was totally evident in their behavior with one another from their very first scene.

    And I “totes agree” (ha!) that the cinematography is stunning.

  9. april says:

    I haven’t watched the DVD extras yet, Sheila, but I will. In combination with your previous comments about the omission of the cross-dressing episode, the decision not to include that scene in which R reveals his sordid history with the opera singer actually makes me wonder whether there wasn’t a conscious effort to keep the focus on Jane throughout. Even the ambiguity about whether she imagined or actually heard R calling to her is consistent with this. I mean, think about it… I, at least, have never heard the original film referred to as “the Joan Fontaine version” — it’s always “the Orson Welles version.” Ditto “the George C. Scott version” as opposed to “the Susannah York version” and “the William Hurt version” as opposed to whoever the female lead in that one was. If this doesn’t end up being referred to as “the Mia Wasikowska version,” it’ll be “the Cary Fukunaga version” — it sure won’t be “the Fassbender version!”

    Even so, I thought the chemistry between them was incredibly intense — not only in the eroticism of the scene after the fire, but also in the one just before she leaves, when she wants so desperately to stay but can’t escape the knowledge that it would be her undoing. And her reaction in the scene where she first realizes that he actually *sees* her — the one in which he talks about her being no more “naturally” austere than he is “naturally” vicious — OMG!

    BB… did you really say, “She had no chemistry with Rochester, so what’s the point?” Really??? The focus on Jane *did* come at the expense of the Rochester character, but that’s okay by me. In that context, all the contradictions and casual, unexplained cruelties really are more consistent with how he would have registered *with Jane,* based on what she did (and didn’t) know about him. On the other hand, though, I’m not sure they gave us quite enough to explain what his appeal was to her. Yes, they were both damaged, but their strategies for dealing with their fates couldn’t have been more different. I think that, at least as much as the attraction between them, is the point.

  10. sheila says:

    April – that’s a really interesting point about the Rochester focus in other versions. He is such a fascinating guy, and perhaps we are seeing him through Jane Eyre’s eyes – he is the “star” of her own story … but yes, this one really kept its eye on Jane mostly. Rochester remained a bit of a mystery. The reason for him having a French orphan was explained in the sordid story that was cut out – but you kind of get the drift from the one comment he makes to the little girl, “That’s how your mother got my English gold out of my English pocket” – suggesting that he had been charmed, duped. But in the story in the deleted scene (which I remember clearly from the book) he tells the whole story – and it’s fascinating to imagine little Jane trying to handle those revelations. He’s casually mentioning the fact that the French orphan looks nothing like him, so he clearly can’t be the father – something that in early 19th century would be scandalous, obviously – to proper society (although relatively common, I’m sure). The fact is that Jane loves him anyway, even with all his experience with “low” society. He’s as much of a weirdo as she is.

    That’s what I didn’t really get from Fassbender – the weirdness – I got the torment and the loneliness – but not that odd odd strain that makes him almost as mad as the wife in the attic. I am pondering writing another post about Fassbender and how he did capture one specific element of the Rochester character from the book – but it’ll take me some time to get my thoughts together. It’s a subtle element, truly emotional in its basis – and I applaud the director for letting it unfold in the way he did … with just a glance, or a pause … In those small glances and pauses, Rochester shows himself to be an odd guy – the kind of guy I might call “too much”. You want too much from me, you want too much closeness, you need to back OFF. Fassbender managed to convey that in a very delicate way, making the character quite touching.

    Oh, and yes – that scene you mention – how they both are acting opposite to their own natures … or their own reputations … TOTALLY HOT. You can see how taken aback she is. Like: how can he see that??

  11. april says:

    I think I know what you mean, Sheila, but can’t wait to read the more fleshed-out version of what you’re thinking. When I started thinking about the possibility that the focus almost exclusively on Jane was intentional, it actually caused me to be *more* impressed with Fassbender’s performance. I mean, how generous is it to be cast as *Rochester* and yet be willing to underplay all that moody, brooding, explosive drama he’s so famous for?

    As for his weirdness, *that’s* the thing that’s so fascinating about “Wide Sargasso Sea” — the idea that Mr. R had a whole lot more to do with the plight of “Bertha” than the Bronte novel suggests. Not a sociopath, exactly, but a much more damaged (and dangerous) than romantic character.

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  14. For me this one of the better films of the year thus far, and I really loved this piece. It’s not easy to nail down the essence of performances. I hope Wasikowska comes across this :-)

  15. Glenn says:

    Loved this piece, thank you! Mia is a fantastic actor and “Jane Eyre” is a fantastic film.

  16. Marianne says:

    When I saw Mia Wasiwoska rest her hands on that shelf of a dress, I suddenly understood the power of fashion (Women have a built-in ledge! Follows them wherever they go!) That gesture made me super-aware of how tiny Jane’s waist was. And also told me that Jane herself must be aware of having a teensy waist. She in fact calls attention to it by adopting that pose? Don’t ask me why I equate the tiny waist with power. I just KNOW, that’s all . . . If you had beautiful hands, you’d make sure they were always resting on a table or your lap, the better to display their beauty. And Jane, no matter that she is a poor orphan, with very drab clothes, has this one remarkable thing: that waist. In fact, she is the only one in that house who has a waist (Forget Mrs. Fairfax! Kind but no waist! Mrs. Fairfax therefore is a very limited personality!). So, behind that mousy exterior, Jane does possess an acute perception of herself AS A WOMAN, and that in my book translates to power.

  17. sheila says:

    Marianne – I like your take a LOT!!

  18. Anthony says:

    Sheila, it seems odd posting over a year after everyone else, but your piece and the responses are so interesting it’s hard to resist. Like others I have to admit to having no expertise on acting. After seeing Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre last year, though, I have to pay much closer attention to the craft. Re her posture, she has referred several times to the benefit that ballet training gave her. Interestingly, I think (but I’m not sure) that she’s had little or no formal acting education. Do you know of other top performers who are similar in this regard? While her performances in Jane Eyre , The Kids are All right and In Treatment are her best, she’s worth watching in minor roles. Have you seen That Evening Sun? Her scenes with Hal Holbrook are a true delight.
    Right now she’s back here in Australia working on the film Tracks. If you don’t know it’s the story of a woman who made a 2700 km desert trek from central Australia to the Indian Ocean with a team of camels. If the film succeeds in conveying the hardship of that journey then I think it will be the most physically demanding role she’s done so far. I’ll be curious to see how she handled it
    Re Jane Eyre: Very good overall but the novel’s final conversation between Jane and Rochester should have been included. It’s too enjoyable for any film version to leave out.

    • sheila says:

      Anthony – thanks for the comment!
      // Re her posture, she has referred several times to the benefit that ballet training gave her. //

      I had not heard that and it doesn’t surprise me to hear she has dance training. Sometimes dancers are far more in touch with “shape” than actors are – dancers are not afraid of making what may seem like “artificial” choices (ie: “let me crook my elbows this way because it will give the character the silhouette I want”) – because they know the end result must be visible, seen. Actors sometimes shy away from making such choices.

      // Do you know of other top performers who are similar in this regard?//

      There are many who have no formal training, although I think that’s pretty uncommon. Training is so good for an actor, especially if you want to be in it for the long haul. You have to know how to work. Sometimes, though, work itself is the best training possible. So I think it varies.

      I love how transformed she is from film to film, and I really felt in Jane Eyre that she WAS that character (and that is a character I hold very dear).

      Thanks again for commenting!

  19. Clary says:

    Maybe Mia has grandchildren by now, but I saw Jane Eyre only yesterday and, while watching it, I remembered what you had said about her posture and shape. I don’t think corsets has anything to do about it, I suppose Mrs. Halifax has a corset too (a loose one!), posture and has to do with what you are and your upbringing. A tomboy girl in a country house has a different posture than a pampered city girl. Different also than a self concious girl growing up at an orphan school where you are not allowed to display any individual quality. But her shape reflects her own personality, so different than the shape and personality of Blanche Ingram, the snobbish woman who almost marries Mr. Rochester.
    One word about the cinematography: the lonely landscape is so beautiful and it hides its own drama, winds, gelid sun and sudden bright days which are a delight.
    The costumes are great, except for one detail. Little Adele is almost always wearing clothes too light for the weather, short leaves on thin dresses, etc. It’s supposed to be a cold house, long dark corridors, it’s always cloudy, I can’t buy it you give these clothes to a little girl. It’s the same with British productions showing the 50s, women always wear thin dresses and short leaves, it’s just not posible they wouldn’t be sick all the time! Maybe it was the rationing after the war, or they have their character strongly built so they don’t feel the cold, or maybe it’s just the costume director in their productions wants to show their beautiful dresses and forget about weather correctness.
    Anyway, thank you for giving me something special to look on Jane Eyre. And I remembered immediately when watching the film, so that shows something about your writing.

    • sheila says:

      Clary – thanks so much for your in-depth response to the film – you make me want to see it again immediately!

  20. Derrick says:

    This is an ancient post, but I loved reading it. I first discovered Mia in ALICE IN WONDERLAND, a film I have watched many many times.

    I have enjoyed pretty much everything that she’s done, especially the mind-bending STOKER that came out about two years back. And the one with Julianne Moore – something about maps to stars’ houses.

    She can do no wrong. And your essay is proof of that. Plus, thanks for the gorgeous stills.

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