Review: Jane Eyre (2011, Fukunaga)


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.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Jane Eyre (2011, Fukunaga)

  1. Very good review. I have no previous experience with Jane Eyre so I appreciate the brevity in which you discuss the specifics. I really enjoyed the section about the composition of the film and cinematography. Really looking forward to seeing this film. I’ve found that its finally coming to my area on April 8th.

  2. I admire your review for being more eloquent and less-fangay-y than mine. I just also realized how much of an ‘actor’s’ movie this is, watching Wasikowska, Fassbender and there tete-a-tete’s. That their performances and evincing of love can outshine the villainy, for better or worse of the film and its genres.

    1. Catherine says:

      Their scenes really elevated everything. I’m sure they would have been well performed by other actors, but I feel the two of them, especially together, really created something memorable.

  3. elsa says:

    Hi, read your review and it was really balanced yet i can not call this film compelling. Reading the book would help many who go to see this film I think. Not much to say except the biggest issues with this movie for me are that others films and TV versions (esp. Rochesters – Orson Welles, Timothy Dalton, Toby Stephens and even William Hurt) stayed true to the intensity of the novel and its characters’s nature – something I really did not sense with this version. Unfortunately, because not enough time was dedicated to developing the characters (I think an hour 1/2 would have helped) and to showing the chemistry of their interactions, I was left with a bland distorted image of the story – so much was missing. No true tension is seen with regards to various dynamics; temptation vs fidelity, secrets vs truths, independence vs security, Grecian vs Morose (a novel’s joke), Dark/Sexy verse Puritan/Clean etc. An argument such as there was not enough time to illustrate these interplays may suffice but there are too many theatrical devices and adaptations that assert the opposite. I would also like to add that it was an insult to Michael Fassbender’s talent not to give him the opportunity to explore the darkest/deadliest corners of Rochester’s psyche along with the struggle to be free of past demons and mistakes – I say this because I am a fan of the man and he is capable e.g. HEX, Hunger, Angel. Most persons who adore the book and read it in the past five years or so have commented on the missing elements. Others seem to doubt Wasikowska’s ability to bring forth a mature, complex yet seeking character. I mostly blame the script and some of the direction and it is true that you cannot cram everything in a movie. But selection is key. Jamie Bell was good and Judith Dench of course was perfect, not only because of her acting ability but her intimate knowledge of the character, history and culture of time (check out her other historical pieces). The difference in cinematography and musical score did create a unique atmosphere but it was not enough to compel me. Thanks for your review.

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