A Masterful Jane Eyre Stresses Independence

A Masterful <i>Jane Eyre</i> Stresses Independence

If Jane Eyre is not the greatest of the Great Books with a permanent position on required-reading lists, it may be the most frequently filmed: At least 10 cinematic versions of the story have been made dating back to the dawn of the silent era—more, if you count made-for-TV adaptations and loose glosses such as Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie.

Considering the glut of Jane Eyres available to anyone with a Netflix account, there may be no more compelling reason for this new version of the story—directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender—than timing. In 1996, when Franco Zeffirelli had the last big-screen go at Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the Merchant Ivory era of prestige period-pic catnip for Academy voters and AP English students was just past its peak; 15 years later, if there’s anything hotter in Hollywood than dull British respectability, it’s gothic romances about teen girls.

The moment may be right to cash in on Jane Eyre’s blend of girl-to-woman rites of passage, supernatural/psychological paranoia, tragic love, and English accents, but Fukunaga’s film is anything but trendy. Rather than Twilight-izing a classic tale—as Catherine Hardwicke appears to have done with Red Riding Hood, which also opens this week but wasn’t screened in time for our deadline—Fukunaga has made his Jane Eyre an intimate, thoughtful epic, anchored by strong lead performances and the gorgeous, moody 100-shades-of-gray cinematography of Adriano Goldman.

Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, hungry for action
Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, hungry for action

Details

Jane Eyre
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Focus Features
Opens March 11

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Fukunaga (whose only previous feature is the 2009 Sundance Prize–winning Sin Nombre) fragments the narrative, introducing us to Jane (Wasikowska) as a young woman run ragged, fleeing an unspecified threat. She is taken in by young clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and nursed back to health by his sisters; from there, Jane flashes back to her beginnings. Setting up Jane’s tale as a mystery—what was she running from, and why?—Fukunaga skips back and forth across years at the speed of memory. This lends an urgency to character-driven vignettes that demonstrate how Jane’s identity has been shaped through hardships: the petty cruelty and eventual abandonment by her aunt (Sally Hawkins), Jane’s guardian after her parents die; the cherished female friend who dies in her arms at charity school; and, finally, the loneliness of life as governess to Adele, a French orphan who lives in a spooky country house alone but for servants and occasional visits from her ostensible caretaker, the mysterious Mr. Rochester (Fassbender).

It’s in the latter phase that Jane longingly states what Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini have isolated as one of the story’s key themes: “I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man.” In her station, the best she can hope for is action through a man—and so when Rochester begins calling her to join him for fireside chats, it upends Jane’s world. Fukunaga never overplays Jane’s sexual awakening, allowing it instead to become evident through her restless distraction. Even after a real romance with Rochester begins, Jane is ever conscious of the social strata and years that separate her and her beloved; their union feels “unreal,” every moment of bliss tinged with paranoia. (The brilliantly evocative sound design deepens the sense of the unknown lurking in every scene, from wind through a chimney to thunder rumbling under a first kiss.)

Jane Eyre hits its glorious gothic peak with Jane in flight from that romance—alone in a storm in a deserted field, the pain of having opened her heart only to have it broken twinned with literal sickness resulting from “exposure.” Though she has hit rock bottom, it’s this “action” that will ultimately lead Jane to what she’s been looking for. Even as it romanticizes agony, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre plays as a correction to the Twilight series—in which a teenage girl idolizes mystically powerful boys—arguing that love, in its perfect state, is a meeting between equals. Using Brontë’s text as the basis for an inquiry into free will versus servitude, Fukunaga mounts a subtly shaded, yet emotionally devastating, examination of what it really means to choose one’s own way.

 
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7 comments
Felicity M Brown
Felicity M Brown

Orson Welles Fassbender is not, but he does have some potential as Rochester. Unfortunately, it never materialises, probably through poor direction. Apart from the odd flash here and there, he lacks Rochester's world-weariness and bitter edge. There is something lacking also in the supposed passion between the two, and absolutely no sense of that desperate urgency in Rochester's longing for Jane, especially when she decides to leave, and no real sign of his struggle with his own conscience. Neither is he given the chance to test or tease Jane convincingly over Blanche Ingram. What's more Fassbender perhaps appears too young and certainly too conventionally good-looking to play Rochester and, as always in screen adaptations, Jane is far too pretty to say her words about being poor and plain and little! As always, again, the screenwriter too often thinks she knows better than Bronte herself when it comes to dialogue; sadly, she doesn't, and therefore we never quite get the sense and tone of Jane's bold plain-speaking to Rochester which so shocks the deferential Mrs Fairfax and which explains his fascination with her.

There are also a number of unfortunate serious "mistakes" in the adaptation. It's unforgivable in this gothic novel to leave out the episode of the veil torn in the night and equally so not to exploit the mysterious presence in the house. The changes in Mrs Fairfax's words and role add absolutely nothing and her presence at the end is inexplicable. And surely Jane has to be almost out of sight when the guests speak disparagingly about governesses? Rude they may be..but maybe not quite that rude!

Jamie Bell completely lacks the gravitas of St John Rivers, his "marble brow" and cold but noble commitment to his mission. We don't see any of Jane's struggle to decide how to respond to him. St John does not meet Jane's refusal with petulant bad temper in the novel but with powerful attempts to appeal to her conscience over and above her notion of love.

Sally Hawkins is good as young Mrs Reed, although one would have liked to see some sign of incipient guilt feeling when she dismisses Jane from her sight. However, when dying, she is hopeless. She conveys no real sense of the lifetime of tormented guilt which we see in the novel. One feels as though the scene was rushed and the first poor attempt simply allowed to remain. Again, this is surely slapdash direction, certainly not inability on Hawkins' part.

Why no Bessie...or hardly any? The Bessie-Jane relationship is important, as is the Miss Temple-Jane friendship. And why on earth is Jane made to teach little Adele stuff which, in the circumstances (a little French girl learning English), would be simply ridiculously difficult and unlikely.

Why hardly any Grace Poole?!

And how could Simon McBurney, brilliantly though he played the role, convey the sense of hugeness of Mr Brocklehurst for young Jane? Not big enough!

So what is good??!

Mia Wasikowska is charming. She is excellent as Jane, within the limits of the direction. Young John Reed is brilliantly played by Craig Roberts in his brief appearance, and Romy Settbon Moore as Adele is just perfect! It's always a pleasure to see Judi Dench although she's hardly challenged as good old Mrs Fairfax...and given some daft lines to boot! Amelia Clarkson as Young Jane is convincing too; a superb young actress.

But the overwhelming strength of the film lies in the magnificent screenplay, the hugely evocative landscapes, large and small, the brooding Yorkshire moors and mists,the flashes of flowers and splashes of blossom against the grey, the cold and solitary buildings, the spooky candle-lit interiors.

It really is worth seeing the film just for this! But if you know "Jane Eyre", don't go expecting to see it!

Me
Me

Why is the lead photo of Tamzin Merchant as Mary Rivers, a minor character, and not of Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre?

Sakara
Sakara

the more latino usa becomes, the more british movies are made that nobody in usa gives a shit about.

ps....british royalty suck ass, too.

Hypatia
Hypatia

Sound's like you know all about sucking A### how about instead learning the usage of grammar and punctuation!

Janelover
Janelover

WTF? I live in South America and I can't wait to see this movie, one of the best books I have ever read. Your comment is so prejudiced, it sounds like Latin Americans can't appreciate foreign literature or other cultures.

Sakara
Sakara

you've been brainwashed by the gringo liberal media.

gringo liberal hollywood in no hurry to adapt latino literature.

Planas
Planas

Really? How about the following which were adapted into film, off the top of my head... there are many, many more: The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende. Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel). Love in the Times of Cholera (Garcia Marquez). The Time of the Hero (Vargas Llosa)

Maybe u should research a little more before attacking... :) And by the way, I can't wait for Jane Eyre and I come from Paraguay!!!!

 

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