“Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings?”
Just as no one could ever accuse Brontë's beloved heroine of lacking passion, the latest motion picture adaptation of Jane Eyre, helmed by up-and-coming director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), runs no risk of being labeled as emotionless or cold. Thanks to an innovative script penned by Moira Buffini that cuts straight to the heart of the source material, and a gifted cast whose on-screen chemistry is sublimely genuine, Fukunaga's Jane Eyre has the potential to become the definitive film version for Brontë fans worldwide and may even draw interest from those reluctant to embrace the novel.
Jane Eyre is a story so classic, it's hard to find someone who hasn't at least heard of the plain governess and her tumultuous relationship with Edward Fairfax Rochester, the quintessential Byronic hero-with-a-secret. In a testament to its timeless power and universal popularity, Jane Eyre has, over the last 100 years, been brought to life in 18 feature film versions and nine telefilm versions (not to mention several different musical versions), giving those that decide to create yet another interpretation the added challenge of bringing something original and unique to the table to validate their production. In this sense, Fukunaga and Buffini have succeeded marvelously, giving us for the first time a Jane Eyre that is no slow-paced, cookie-cutter period drama, but an intimate, soulful story that is driven by the book's more Gothic aspects and is unexpectedly dark and spooky in tone.
Enhancing Fukunaga and Buffini's vision is a moody, violin-heavy score from Dario Marianelli (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), wonderful Victorian costumes, and painstakingly decorated sets. The film's natural lighting also merits recognition, as it is both true to the era and visually striking. From firelit drawing-rooms and candlelit hallways to sun-dappled gardens, both light and shadow play a huge part in establishing the atmosphere of each scene.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) impresses as Jane, an orphan cast off by her only living relative, the tyrannical Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), and sent to Lowood School, an abusive institution for girls where she suffers further mistreatment and loss. Our protagonist ascends into young adulthood longing for freedom, independence, and – perhaps above all – love. She finally leaves Lowood at the age of 18, having secured a position as governess to Mr. Rochester's young ward, Adèle (Romy Settbon Moore), at gloomy Thornfield Hall.
Wasikowska, being perhaps one of the only age-appropriate actresses to have inhabited this role, is refreshingly youthful, lending an “Eyre” of authenticity to the character's emotional awakenings. Her performance is exquisitely honest and spirited, and she brings an intelligence and a great depth of understanding to her portrayal that make Jane's innermost feelings palpable and real.
As Rochester, Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Centurion) is absolutely captivating, embodying the character's jaded, tempestuous nature with magnetic energy, but also allowing for glimpses of the sensitivity and vulnerability that lurk beneath his hardened exterior. To his credit (and to Buffini's, for giving him the right things to say), Fassbender manages to inspire the audience to both sympathize with Rochester and to accept the motives that propelled him to commit the questionable act that now haunts both him and his home (not an easy feat).
Other standouts include Jamie Bell (most recently seen in The Eagle) as the inexorable St. John Rivers, and Judi Dench, who – in typical Dame Judith fashion – steals nearly every scene she's in as Thornfield's housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax.
Unlike other adaptations, this Jane Eyre does not unfold linearly, but is presented as a series of flashbacks, a method that works surprisingly well. When we first meet Jane, she is rain-soaked, sobbing, and wandering the moors, clearly running away from something (or someone). On the verge of death, she collapses at the doorstep of the Rivers family, whose home becomes the setting for the narrative frame that surrounds the majority of the film. I found this approach to be very effective, as it adds an element of mystery to Jane's past, making it all the more compelling when eventually revealed.
Fukunaga and Buffini also break from tradition with their rather abrupt ending, avoiding a neatly-wrapped, epilogistic conclusion and choosing instead to leave us musing upon what is arguably the novel's – and the film's – most touching moment.
Jane Eyre is such a rich, intricate tale, some things will inevitably be lost in translation when making the leap from book to two-hour movie. In this new version, we lose much of Jane's pre-Thornfield upbringing, including her years as a teacher at Lowood and many of her solitary periods of introspection and self-evolution. As a result, we are somewhat prevented from truly growing with her as a person, and I worry that those unfamiliar with the novel will not get to know, love, and respect Miss Eyre as well as those of us with dog-eared paperback copies perpetually in our hands.
Given the time constraints, I think that Buffini made the right decision in choosing to focus her script on Rochester and Jane; after all, it is their friendship – and later, romance – that forms the pulse of the story. However, the film is so tightly wrapped around them, that many events and periphery characters are left unexplained or unseen. We never learn the details of Rochester's history with Adèle's mother, for example, and socialite Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots), who is usually more of a central figure, is left with little to do but preen, giggle, and scowl in the background.
All that being said, however, Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is a splendidly crafted film with “full as much heart”
as Rochester and Jane themselves. It is fresh, imaginative, and – though set in the 19th century – somehow contemporary, which is fitting, given that the novel was seen as quite radical at the time of its publication. The talented Wasikowska and Fassbender are electrifying in their scenes together and do an extraordinary job of making the connection between their two characters not only believable, but beautiful to watch.
If she were alive today, I believe that Charlotte Brontë herself – after first emerging from a state of technological shock – would wholly approve.
What did you think of this review?