This weekend, the stormy, deluxe new version of Jane Eyre opens, and in just about every way the rituals that have long attended the mounting and marketing of a lofty romantic period piece have been duly observed. The film’s star, Mia Wasikowska, is a ravishing and talented up-and-coming classy It Girl of the moment — just as Gwyneth Paltrow was 15 years ago when she first set hearts aflutter in Emma (1996), and Helena Bonham Carter a quarter of a century ago when her stately carriage and wistful dark eyebrows anchored in A Room with a View (1985). Audiences, I have no doubt, will line up to see the movie, at least for a few weeks. And though I personally didn’t think Jane Eyre was all that, many critics have disagreed with me, like A.O. Scott of The New York Times, who gave it the kind of reverently thoughtful sendoff that distributors crave. For a long time, movies like Jane Eyre have occupied an essential niche in our moviegoing culture, and in this case the niche appears, once again, to have been filled.
Yet I don’t think I’m being churlish if I say that when it comes to these films, and you can call them what you will — literary chick flicks, Masterpiece Theatre movies — the bloom is off the rose, and has been for a while. I mean, name the last one you loved. To me, the last really terrific one was Pride & Prejudice, the sumptuous and playful Keira Knightley version that came out in 2005. That’s a long time ago, and since then, Joe Wright, the director of that film, made the overblown postmodern bodice ripper Atonement (2007), and we had a version of Brideshead Revisited (2008) that I thought was perfectly okay but that didn’t exactly set the world on fire, plus the Noel Coward-on-Adderall comedy Easy Virtue (2008). That’s not a complete list — I’m surely forgetting a few — but I don’t think that would be the case if these movies hadn’t become so…forgettable.
It wasn’t always so. But then, it’s worth remembering that these films weren’t always so vital and celebrated either. Back in the early ’80s, when I was starting out as a critic, you felt like you were drawing the short straw whenever you had to review a Merchant Ivory film. Too often, they were stodgy and half-baked, and they just about reeked of “prestige,” with overly arch performances and dialogue that could make your teeth hurt. James Ivory, as a director, still hadn’t quite figured out what he was doing, and so the films, in their very quasi-ineptitude, seemed to be flaunting their literary pedigrees to an unseemly degree, like the art-house version of a designer label. I confess that my casual disdain for such Merchant Ivory films as The Europeans (Henry James!) and Quartet (Jean Rhys!) was influenced by a remark Pauline Kael dropped into her review of The Warriors (1979), when she said that the counterculture kids started out as the film generation, but “now, they’re the Masterpiece Theatre generation.” At the time, that was a real insult. It was saying that for certain people, “art” had become a fancy word for “class.” A lot of us became movie buffs to get away from that sort of thing.
But then something happened: The Merchant Ivory team pulled itself together and made A Room with a View, an enchanting and much, much more finely woven drama of civilized feminine desire — and with that movie, a lace-doily revolution was launched. A form, and an audience, found each other, and it was love at first blushing gaze. A Room with a View was more than a hit — it was the elegant crystallization of a certain highbrow populist dream. I’m not just saying, however, that these movies, around that time, got better. They got better for a reason, which is that the purpose they were about to serve had become, spiritually and culturally, much more vast.
In the ’80s, Hollywood began to turn itself into a born-again high-concept playground for arrested adults, and the films that came out of it grew shoddier and shoddier, overrun with special effects and knockabout gross-out comedy. During this period, the virtues of a Merchant Ivory movie — shapely and rounded storytelling, a classical sense of understatement — began to seem far more redemptive. They were no longer the short straw. They were an honest relief from all the noise and clutter.
But these movies, for a time, sustained and fulfilled a mythological romantic promise as well. It’s no coincidence that their rise in the culture roughly paralleled the return of the romantic comedy. That form came back thanks, almost singlehandedly, to Nora Ephron, who kicked off its resurgence in 1989, with her script for When Harry Met Sally. And though the two genres — refined, teacup-rattling, ultra-WASPy literary adaptation; vulgar, wisecracking, love-on-rye screwball comedy — couldn’t on the surface have been more different, both expressed the desire of moviegoers, especially women, for a newly chivalrous ideal of manhood, and for a new set of tough-love rules for womenhood, in the wake of how hyper-sexual and degraded our instant-hookup, beer-bong “relationship” culture had become. The longing for a vision of love that was, in a word, old-fashioned wasn’t just nostalgia. It was downright primal — an essential corrective, and a rebirth as well. Suddenly, there were a lot of Bridget Joneses out there looking for their Darcys.
The Masterpiece Theatre movie, by which I mean films made in that style, not the actual PBS series (though that continues to thrive), became a genre unto itself. And it had a great run, buoyed by the presence of actors like Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet and Colin Firth — the 1995 six-part British television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice made Firth, as Darcy, the Tyrone Power of the genre — and, of course, Emma Thompson, who in the ’90s became a kind of poster girl for the radiant and funny sanity of these films. You only have to think back to Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) or the Merchant Ivory The Remains of the Day (1993) or Iain Softley’s ravishing adaptation of The Wings of the Dove (1997), starring Helena Bonham Carter in her richest and finest performance, or the grandly cutting upstairs-downstairs comedy of Gosford Park (2001) to realize how deftly these films had insinuated themselves into the universe of mainstream movies.
There were limits, though. Jane Austen, Henry James: To be adapted, these authors needed, in certain ways, to be simplified. There was, quite simply, no way to fit all the nuances onto the screen. That’s why, to me, no one has ever truly successfully adapted the creator of drawing-room psychodramas who I believe to be the greatest American novelist: Edith Wharton. No, not even Scorsese. The Age of Innocence was too fetishistic in its stateliness — it had gorgeous moments, but the interior chambers of Wharton’s characters are too vast, echoing with too many emotional crosscurrents. That’s why they resist adaptation. When filmmakers like Terence Davies and Jane Campion made their agonizingly ambitious art-film versions of Wharton and James (The House of Mirth, in 2000, and The Portrait of a Lady, in 1996), you could feel this genre begin to get stretched to the breaking point. It couldn’t accommodate what the filmmakers were trying to do, which was literally to put the novels, in their entirety (and with an added-value myopic leftist-feminist slant), onto the screen.
Yet now we face a moment when James, Wharton, and Austen, as sources, have been more or less squeezed dry. And what’s left, really? Another version of Wuthering Heights? Well, now we’ve got Jane Eyre, a movie by a different Brontë, featuring her (masochistic) variation on Heathcliff, but somehow I don’t suspect that Michael Fassbender’s unsmoldering, gentlemanly Mr. Rochester is going to take up residence in a lot of moviegoers’ dreams. That’s a male critic’s subjective assessment, of course. Far be it from me to say that Fassbender in mutton-chop sideburns isn’t the new Colin Firth, or that Mia Wasikowska’s not-so-plain Jane won’t make you swoon in empathy. But the trouble with a genre when it’s been around for this long is that its beloved tropes start to look like tics. We don’t just enjoy them, we expect them. And so it’s harder for them to delight us in the way they once did, and harder for a certain myth of idealized romantic suitor to feel as if he’s triumphantly undercutting the cruder, Jersey Shore frat-house spirit off our time. He has, instead, just become part of the wallpaper. The Masterpiece Theatre movie isn’t dead — it will probably be around for quite a while — but every time I see a new one, it’s starting to look more and more like a room with a very familiar view.
So do you agree with me? Have these movies lost their luster? If not, name a recent one that you adored. And what’s your all-time favorite Masterpiece Theatre movie?