The latest adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece, Jane Eyre - directed by the relatively unknown Cary Fukunaga - is quietly becoming the first viable best picture contender of 2011...and unfortunately that's exactly the kind of 'tricky honor' that could easily translate into absolutely nothing in the long run.
Sure, it has been remarkably well-received, the critics scores are basically identical to Atonement's, the last British epic romance that broke into the best picture-race. It IS based on a beloved and highly acclaimed classic and we all know the Academy loooves those, especially well-executed ones. It has been doing decent arthouse-business so far and it features rising stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in the lead roles, and – honoring the great British filmmaking tradition – excellent, highly respected actors in crucial supporting parts (Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Jamie Bell). The fact that Mia Wasikowska just had a textbook 'pre-Oscar year' (a smash hit + a best picture nominated little indie), helps too : that's the kind of platform that could catapult a promising up-and-comer into an Academy Award-nominee. Meanwhile Michael Fassbender has become „the next big thing” overnight : on top of Jane Eyre, this year he has a hotly anticipated comic-book film, the latest from Cronenberg AND Soderbergh, not to mention his reunion with his Hunger-director...oh, he also signed on for Ridley Scott and Guy Ritchie. So, yes, just to state the obvious : the guy is in high-demand.
All in all, we have a critically acclaimed period piece based on a literary classic that has delivered decent Box Office so far, features an impressive acting ensemble - including two rising stars as the leads – not to mention it is produced by the Academy Award-nominated producer of Elizabeth, scored by the Academy Award-winning composer of Atonement and the costume designer is also an Academy Award-winner (The Duchess)...it simply sounds like what Oscar-dreams are made of.
all this could be diminished if the early release date indeed turns out to be the damaging factor it IS in most Oscar-cases. The fact is, in the last 15 years only two films managed to sneak into the best picture race with a March release date, and one of those was a studio film grossing over 200M worldwide and starring the biggest female movie star at the time (Julia Roberts's Erin Brockovich). The other film was Fargo, the movie that put the Coens on the map.
As much as I would love to downplay this data, I must say it is definitely not a promising sign. And it isn't even the only barrier to overcome. It is the umpteenth adaptation of the novel and though it probably doesn't hurt its Awards-prospects that much, it might cost a few votes here and there. The film is doing well in limited release, but in these cases the expansions are always tricky and often not very fruitful... it has to do at least around 15-30M to stay in the race and to achieve that, it HAS TO get expansions and it has to pull them off with at least semi-success. As strange as it sounds, the leads could generate 'problems' on their own : they seem to be „too good” this year...they have other films that could garner them acclaim (A Dangerous Method, Restless) and since those are released around the end of the year, I have to automatically assume that voters will remember those performances and movies instead of Jane Eyre. If the campaign loses its acting contenders to other studios, the film will have a hard time getting traction in the other categories therefore it will be crucial to provide a very effective campaign for these two. And last, but definitely not least, this strange 'Bronte-duel' could hurt Jane Eyre, as well : Wuthering Heights is also coming out this year and a lot of people – including me – are expecting magic after seeing the director's previous film (Fish Tank). I don't know whether these two would turn out to be direct competition for each other or it is only in my head and they could co-exist without a hitch, but the release dates here – once again – could be crucial. IF Wuthering Heights meets or exceeds the expectations and there will be room for only one British period romance (based on a novel by one of the Bronte sisters), common wisdom says the one with the better release date will end up with all the attention...and Andrea Arnold's film is expected to come out late fall/early winter...
For what it's worth, I think Jane Eyre has a chance at these categories : picture, actor, actress, supporting actress, adapted screenplay, score, cinematography, costume, art direction. BUT realistically speaking we have to consider that even if the leads get nominations, that could happen for other films (with much more Academy-friendly release dates); the supporting actresses (Judi Dench and Sally Hawkins) though always excellent, don't even have the momentum right now ; the script-nod seems highly unlikely considering Pride and Prejudice failed to receive one with its hit-status and late release date, meanwhile the cinematography and art direction might not be flashy enough compared to all the big-budgeted films' coming out in the next few months .
Bottom line : although there is a chance the film could sneak into 9 categories including several acting ones, realistically speaking its best shot is at picture, score and costume design UNLESS the leads receive better, more agressive, more effective campaigns for this film than for the 'more Oscary-projects/roles with better release dates' (A Dangerous Method, Restless).
To end the piece on a positive note, it should be emphasized that Focus Features is one of the very best at Awards-campaigns and last year they succesfully overcame the early release date-issue when they secured a place in the best picture-race for The Kids are all right. Granted, it wasn't THAT early, but 'Kids' also wasn't a critically acclaimed period piece and if they were able to put on the map that contemporary summer comedy, I'm sure as hell they have a better-than-expected shot with Jane Eyre, too.