Film Review: “Jane Eyre”

by Jason LeRoy on March 18, 2011

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in JANE EYRE. © 2011 Focus Features

starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Imogen Poots, Valentina Cervi

written by: Moira Buffini (screenplay), Charlotte Brontë (novel)

directed by: Cary Fukunaga

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content.

When it was announced that Charlotte Brontë’s classic romance Jane Eyre was being adapted for the screen yet again, there seemed to be a collective response of, “Ugh, WHY?!?” And, admittedly, a brief iMDb search reveals no fewer than 22 adaptations of the novel over the last century. But most of those adaptations were for TV, so let’s be honest — they don’t count. This leaves two primary big-screen adaptations: the 1943 film starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, and the 1996 version starring William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Anna Paquin.

But neither of those films seem to hold the “definitive” title when it comes to this story. So, I’m going out on a limb here and declaring the new adaptation by Oakland-born director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) to be the definitive big-screen Jane Eyre…so far, at least. It is exquisitely acted by a top-notch cast, gorgeously photographed by Adriano Goldman, sumptuously costumed by Michael O’Connor, lushly scored by Dario Marianelli (who wrote the stunning score to Atonement), and faithfully adapted by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe). It instills this (somewhat silly) old story with a vibrancy and vitality that blows the dust from the previous versions and starts fresh.

Buffini’s adaptation is told largely in flashback, beginning with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing Thornfield Hall and running hysterically through the English countryside until slumping over outside the home of St. John “Sinjun” Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters, who graciously take her in and nurse her back to health. As she gradually gets back on her feet, we begin learning her “tale of woe” in flashbacks: after the death of her parents, Jane (played as a young girl by the remarkable Amelia Clarkson) was taken in by her wealthy aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins). But when Mrs. Reed decided she was too much of a burden, Jane was dumped into the confines of a bleak all-girls orphanage.

She remained at the orphanage until she was an adult, at which point she was released to become the governess at Thornfield Hall, instructing the half-French bastard daughter of Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) while being tutted after by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). Jane was violent and rebellious when she first entered the orphanage, but she seems to have been thoroughly broken under their tutelage, and is now content to toil quietly in the background.

But when Mr. Rochester — the first man she has ever spoken to — begins taking an interest in her, Jane is taken quite by surprise. She cannot believe that such a handsome and wealthy man, especially one with a known lover, the glamorous Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots), could be attracted to her. But he continues pursuing her, which draws her further and further out of herself. Still, something seems amiss at Thornfield Hall. Weird noises in the night, random fires, etc. Oh well. I’m sure it has nothing to do with any skeletons Mr. Rochester might be hiding in his closet (or other room).

Okay, I have to say this: while it feels somewhat heretical to criticize the plot of such a canonized classic, the final act of Jane Eyre is just outrageously ridiculous. So many deus ex machina converge all at once. I won’t get into detail, on the off-chance that you haven’t read it or seen the prior versions, but seriously: come on. With that said, this film certainly makes the most of the story. It startles the audience with flashes of unexpected violence, as well as several genuinely scary moments.

As for the eroticism of the story, it is certainly palpable, if refreshingly old-school in its execution. When Jane enters Rochester’s bedroom to extinguish a fire (wink! no, seriously) and it becomes clear he is nude under his dressing gown, I was practically lactating. When Jane rushes back to her room and slowly unties her nightshirt, I was worried we’d suddenly be confronted with a masturbation scene (a perennial go-to for “reinventions” of old classics), but thankfully, it doesn’t go there.

As Jane, Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right, Alice in Wonderland) gives her finest performance yet. She is like a grim, taciturn young Sissy Spacek, or a glowering Gwyneth Paltrow. Want more comparisons? I got ’em! She is unabashedly from the Martha Plimpton/Lili Taylor school of unconventional beauties, and she invests the character of Jane with a quiet dignity that grows louder and more pronounced as the film progresses. And Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank), that sexy square-jawed bastard, is certainly the hottest Rochester ever committed to screen. Not that he has much competition (William Hurt?!?). He is thin-hipped and smoldering, with a devilish glimmer in his eyes. Keep your eyes on this one. Dench, Hawkins, and Bell are predictably superb in supporting roles.

At the end of the day, this is still very much Jane Eyre. But if you’re a fan of the novel or in the mood for a dark, exquisitely wrought period romance, this is a must-see.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brodie March 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm

“…somewhat silly old story”? Anyone with that view of this incredible work of literature should not be allowed to write this review. I wonder if the reviewer has even picked up a copy?

Jane Eyre is one of the most beautifully written and poignant novels of all time…not to mention groundbreaking in its dealings with religion and feminist views at the time it was written. This movie does not come close to doing it justice. No harp on the acting — especially Mia Wasikowska’s performance — which was a strength in the film. But the watered down dialogue, brutal editing, and prim portrayal of the story are a failing. It came nothing close to capturing the wild, haunting, gothic imagery evoked by Bronte. They “prettified’ the story… The handsome and gentlemanly Michael Fassbender was poorly cast as dark, heavy-featured and unrefined Rochester, who, at the end of the story, was not sitting picturesquely in a garden — he was horribly deformed by his injuries and living in a shack in the middle of the forest… haha! Sure, this film was well “adapted” to please a mainstream movie-goer, unfamiliar with the book, but it is not “Jane Eyre”.

The reason so many film adaptations (including this one) have failed is understandable — it must be impossibly difficult to take such an expansive, dark and richly detailed book and compress it into commercial film format. So much time passes in the book…so much is said…one of the things that makes Jane Eyre such an incredible book is Bronte’s vivid descriptions of the scenery and the voice of Jane as the narrator, which not only walks us through the story from her intensely close perspective but gives us such an intimate understanding of her thoughts and personality. This movie removes that sense of closeness and crops out some of the most powerful moments and relationships in the book…

Show me the person who can capture the dark, esoteric imagery of this novel, its breathtaking prose AND edit to a movie length while preserving the whole of the story, and I will bow low and shut my mouth. Until then…I will remain the all enduring critic and keep to my copy of Jane Eyre, the novel.

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