The story of Jane Eyre shares several similarities with the phenomenon known as the teen romance, which has taken over young adult literature and film in recent years. A young inexperienced girl, a potentially dangerous and fiercely attractive male and a series of hurdles the two have to overcome before being together. Charlotte Brontë’s gothic novel was not written for teenagers, but many elements have been reconfigured in young adult stories. Cary Fukunaga’s new adaptation of an already much interpreted classic takes us back to basics, showing us how to really tell a romance with his compelling version of Jane Eyre.
Most people know Jane Eyre and her “tale of woe”, but here is a brief summary for those who are unfamiliar. Jane (Mia Wasikowska), an orphan whose childhood consisted of a cold aunt, an abusive nephew and an even more abusive education, is employed as a governess at Thornfield Hall by Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) for his ward Adele (Romy Settbon Moore). As her relations with Rochester progress, it becomes increasingly clear that there is a dark secret he desperately wants to keep hidden.
Those who know the story will be interested to know that the film takes Jane’s encounters with Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters and shuffles events. The film begins with her arrival at Rivers and then flashes back and progressing through her story from there. This was a very smart move from screenwriter Moira Buffini. In addition to writing an outstanding adaptation, all potential pacing issues are solved by spreading out the important but uncharged interactions with Rivers as opposed to tackling it in an entirely separate segment, which might have brought the film to a definite halt.
Many period films, especially those depicting the Victorian era, unsurprisingly and understandably tend to have the same look and feel. Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman create a very precise atmosphere, making full use of the many conventions of the Gothic romance. The film feels naturally lit throughout, creating an often dark and gloomy look with muted grey and brown tones. The barren landscapes, wind and rain and foreboding manors are just a few conventions employed here with stunning effect. Dario Marianelli’s score fills the soundtrack with emotive violins that express the suppressed passion that Jane and Rochester keep below the surface. Fukunaga has a clear vision which he executes with conviction, making it stand out from many adaptations of classic Victorian era literature.
Mia Wasikowska, destined for an exciting lifetime of impressive performances, captures the essence of Jane Eyre. Her dignity, guardedness and centered unwavering morals are all perfectly portrayed. She is understated and powerful, conveying subtle transitions in her face at every turn. It might just be the perfect incarnation of the heroine. Another newly risen star, Michael Fassbender, gives Rochester the appropriate coldness and inner torment, proving with his presence exactly why he is getting the attention he fully deserves. It is when the two actors are brought together that magic happens. It is a rare thing when the two romantic leads have the chemistry the story demands them to have; these two do. The film is most engaging when the two are onscreen together, not just from of the power their scenes have, but because of the way they portray the evolution of their relationship. Buffini makes sure that different circumstances surround each scene they have together, making every single interaction between the two unique.
An aspect of Jane Eyre that disappoints is the dilution of several key themes of the novel, making this adaptation a bit more simplistic than it ultimately should be. In regards of Jane’s character, the novel makes it explicitly clear throughout that she has a fear of losing her freedom. Being locked in the Red Room is a literal example. Her romance with Rochester is a continual inner struggle because she fears losing her identity through marriage. She needs to be in control of her own freedom and identity and this aspect of her character is not explored enough. This specific gender issue would have been refreshing to examine, considering so few romance stories bother to do so. Thankfully, Wasikowska captures the rest of her character so perfectly, that one can only complain about this up to a point.
Similarly, Bertha Mason ceases to be relevant in any way whereas she is probably the most analyzed aspect of Brontë’s novel. Granted, she is in such a small portion of the book, it is hard to expect much. Here though, she is never given the chance to have a purpose, much less a symbol. Lastly, Jane and Rochester’s romance is more conventionally structured here. Their mutual affection for each other makes itself known sooner and in a more straightforward and obvious manner than the novel does. Whether this is a flaw is unclear. On the one hand, I admired the complexities of the novel more but on the other hand, I was more taken in by their romance in this film.
In the end though, the film should be taken as its own work. A film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is impossible to discuss without addressing the source material, particularly when taking into account how many times this story has been adapted to the screen. Jane Eyre succeeds because what it does take on is executed with memorable specificity as well as containing some of the best chemistry between two romantic leads in years. For those who are sick of the kinds of romance films that come put today, whether comedy, drama or fantasy, Jane Eyre provides an opportunity to revisit a classic. Was yet another adaptation necessary? Probably not, but it is hard to imagine anyone complaining about it after seeing Fukunaga and Buffini’s splendid interpretation.