Undoubtedly a unique cinematic vision, The Tree of Life is an artistically realized consideration of life and death, which reaches far beyond the usual ambitions of a film starring Brad Pitt. One of the films key metaphysical concepts compares Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s husband and wife, in an exploration of ‘the way of nature, and the way of grace.’ This spiritual paradox carves out two ways of living; either as Pitt’s stormy authoritarian (nature) or Chastain’s saintly nurturer (grace). However, the divine characteristics embodied in Mr and Mrs O’Brien are not as original as, say, the atomistic timeline of humanity complete with dinosaurs and distant galaxies. The newly adapted version of Jane Eyre, by Cary Fukunaga, uncovers the early blueprint for the ways of nature and grace in Wasikowska’s unshakable Jane and Fassbender’s cold Edward Rochester.
In Malickian style, Jane is positioned fragilely in window frames, staring wistfully out onto the vast rolling landscapes ahead of her. Her puritanical disposition is constantly fringed with sunlight, giving her a verisimilitude against the unreadable Rochester. Rochester’s comparatively shadowy appearance brings with it a frenetic energy to the usually serene Thornfield, much like the silent tension which haunts the family home whenever Mr O’Brien is in residence. Jane has a natural affinity with children, where Rochester scorns them and is completely unmoved by their presence. Mr and Mrs O’Brien are also divided in their approach to raising children; the camera follows Chastain dreamily as she frolicks with the boys, where Pitt strikes tangible remorse in each of their hearts. Jane takes comfort in her painterly surroundings, a place free of fear and servitude, but Rochester takes to destroying them, shooting the birds one morning in an act of frustration. Whenever Jane disappears into the mist-laden fields, we feel unnerved, unsure of her safety. But when Rochester does the same, he blends in with the grey cruelties of the landscape, as if returning to its fold.
Although The Tree of Life is an altogether grander piece, with Malick’s reflections spanning the breadth of existence, there are striking similarities between the ethereal characters of both films. The stoical Jane and Mrs O’Brien embody the ‘higher’ order of the way of grace. They might yearn for lives which better reflect their gentle temperament, but they weather the storms of nature and provide a moral center to both of the films.