Tackling a movie adaptation of a classic book is a daunting task, particularly when many adaptations already exist. Jane Eyre‘s iconic and unwavering place in British literature has also gained a place in film history, since it’s been adapted for both the small screen and the big screen multiple times. I’ve always loved the one with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine since it’s the one I grew up with–plus it’s in black-and-white and has a dramatic film noir score that gives it a great surreal feeling. Since it’s such a well-known story, I wondered if this most recent big-screen adaptation could offer anything new; when I first heard about it, my reaction was, “They made it into a movie again?!” I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh casting and gorgeous locations, as well as the eerie cinematography and score. While this version may not have achieved film history, it certainly has earned its place among faithful adaptations of Charlotte Brontë‘s famous Gothic novel.
Jane Eyre is a story of isolation, independence, redemption, and yes, love. Brontë’s novel is also a coming-of-age story, albeit a tragic one. The movie opens about two-thirds of the way through the novel; we see a young, distraught Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing a gloomy stone house and running across the desolate English moors. She collapses, sobbing and exhausted, on a pile of rocks on the open plain. Through her tears, she sees a home in the distance. She makes her way to the house, where she is taken in by its residents: St. John (Jamie Bell, a grown-up Billy Elliott!) and his sisters, Diana (Holliday Grainger) and Mary (Tamzin Merchant). They nurse her back to health, but she has few responses to them when they ask about her origins. Instead, her time spent with the Rivers serves as a time in Jane’s story to tell the rest of it in flashbacks of Jane’s memories. It’s an interesting approach for the film to take, and one that I enjoyed since the last third of the story is probably the slowest in the novel, and using this time as a chance to have flashbacks while still telling an important part of the story was a good tactic.
Through Jane’s memories, we learn of her neglected childhood. Jane is an orphan who was taken in by her uncle and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Reed after the death of her parents. When her Uncle Reed dies, Jane is left to the hands of her abusive cousins and Mrs. Reed (an against-type Sally Hawkins), who sends Jane away to the repressive and strict Lowood School when Jane stands up to her cousin’s attacks. Mrs. Reed labels Jane as deceitful and defiant, so she summons Lowood’s headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) to take Jane away. Jane is brought to Lowood, a depressing school where the goal is to instill the fear of God in its students through fear and punishment. Mr. Brocklehurst shames Jane, telling the other students to shun her as well, but one little girl, Helen (Freya Parks) reaches out to Jane and the two bond. But Helen dies from a fever, and Jane is left alone in the world once again. That fact does not stop her from finishing her education at Lowood, and at 18, she applies for work as a governess at Thornfield, a stately stone mansion that immediately seems haunted; it’s run by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that Mr. Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), the master, is rarely home, but wants to provide for his young ward, Adèle. As Jane spends her days teaching Adèle, she longs for adventure and a chance to see the world.
One day, Jane goes to town on an errand. When walking through the woods, she startles a horse and its rider; the horse is so frightened, it throws the rider from the horse. Jane offers to help the rider with his injury, although his curt manner rebuffs her. When Jane returns to the house, she learns that the rider is her employer. Rochester, though sullen and ornery, seems taken by Jane and commands her to sit and talk with him. Jane is frank and bold with him, refusing to let his position as her wealthy male employer shake her ground. As their romance blooms, it’s subtle, their flirtations understated–both Wasikowska and Fassbender communicate a lot with a few looks and a few words. Of course, there are obstacles to their relationship–a penniless orphan governess is scarcely on the same social standing as a wealthy man of property. But their class differences are only the beginning, for Mr. Rochester harbors a deep, dark secret, so appropriate for the brooding, tortured soul his character embodies. When Jane discovers the secret, she flees Thornfield in distress, until she finds herself at the Rivers’ home where the movie begins.
I’ll stop discussing plot here because I can’t say anything more without giving away the crucial points. As always, I would suggest if you really don’t know the plot, read the book before seeing any film adaptation. No film can match the web of suspense and horror that Brontë spins at the novel’s climax, and its action is best read as text before experienced onscreen. However, I was impressed with the screenplay for this adaptation; it’s faithful and closely aligns with Brontë’s original plot and incorporates many of her original lines from the novel. The film’s young director, Cary Fukunaga, takes on this classic with finesse and new eyes; he incorporates an eerie sense throughout the film by keeping the indoor scenes dimly lit and providing plenty of outdoor shots of the vast moors.
Mia Wasikowska brings out the different sides of Jane’s character nicely; she shows us Jane’s independent and self-preserving side while also showing Jane’s attention to propriety and a shyness induced by years of neglect. I was skeptical of the casting of Michael Fassbender, since I thought he was too young and too obviously attractive to play the part of the tormented older Mr. Rochester. Even though his physical presence is not as commanding as Orson Welles’ when he played this role, the depth Fassbender brings to this role is refreshing and authentic.
There’s nothing revolutionary about this most recent version of Jane Eyre as either a film or as an adaptation of a classic novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. As a whole, I was impressed with how closely the screenplay resembled the novel, and how the actors took on these characters that have been played so many times. Most of all, I think the general feeling of this movie resonated with a haunted feeling, which plays out well as both a hint to the movie’s most riveting moment and as a characterization of Brontë’s Gothic novel.
My rating: Good (3 of 4 stars)
Quick facts: Jane Eyre, 2011; PG-13 rating with a running time of 120 minutes; directed by Cary Fukunaga; Focus Features/BBC Films
Sources: Photo insert: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Eyre_(2011_film)