Film review: Jane Eyre

Despite reservations about yet another version of a classic story, Duncan Wu enjoys a faithful rendition

September 8, 2011

Jane Eyre

Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell and Judi Dench

Released in the UK on 9 September

Opening scene: an out-of-control woman in Victorian dress wandering the moors. It could only be Jane Eyre - and not for the first time. Adapted for the big and small screens more than 30 times in the past, Charlotte Bronte’s novel is ideal for the camera, which can depict the sane, airy, spacious ground floor of Thornfield Hall just as vividly as its claustrophobic attic and differently abled, full-time inhabitant.

Why do it again? Cary Joji Fukunaga’s new cinematic rendering of Bronte’s story offers some novelties for the jaded palates of those who watch, rather than read, their classics. For one thing, Moira Buffini’s spare, intelligent screenplay foregrounds the St John Rivers episode, which in earlier versions is either abbreviated or omitted: those unacquainted with the novel may be surprised to hear that, after leaving Mr Rochester, Jane spends a year with Rivers and his two sisters, which makes her decision to return to Thornfield all the more surprising.

Fukunaga’s version is filmed in washed-out tones, as if everything were bleached by the unalloyed misery of the Victorian period. Even the natural world is anaemic and inhospitable: it rains, it snows, the wind blows a lot, and everyone looks as if they’ve had it up to the gills. Buffini’s dialogue preserves the diction and cadences of Victorian speech, and the supporting cast boasts several actors, including Simon McBurney and Judi Dench, who could give conviction to the slogan on a crisp packet. “She has a heart of spite,” says McBurney as the frightful Mr Brocklehurst, speaking to the inmates of Lowood Institution of young Jane, “We shall root out the wickedness in this small ungrateful plant!” It is a delight to listen to him intone these words, even though he is licensing child abuse.

It may be that this adaptation works because the two principals - Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) and Michael Fassbender (Rochester) - are less well-known than their supporting cast. Neither could be said to be conventionally good-looking. They have regional accents, and both seem, throughout much of the film, to be genuinely unhappy. Wasikowska takes a particularly unsparing line with Jane. From the outset, she is hard-boiled, reluctant to let her feelings show, and determined to face down the rest of the world. When she tells Rochester he is not to be trusted, we know she bears the scars of betrayal. In another scene, Rochester asks: “Do you find me handsome?” “No sir,” she replies, with a frankness that is almost chilling. She is especially good in the scene following her abortive marriage ceremony, when she frantically unlaces her wedding dress as if it were lined with poison. Fassbender is suitably morose as Rochester, shooting innocent animals, ranting at his servants and reproaching Jane for “distracting me from the mire of my thoughts”.

It is one of the paradoxes of Jane Eyre that, for all its characters’ foibles, it is a love story. Bronte drives wedge after wedge between her protagonists before bringing them together in a reunion that culminates with the birth of their first child. I can’t remember seeing an adaptation that includes Rochester Jr, and this one omits him - ending, as most do, with Jane’s discovery of her former employer, nearly blind and almost destitute. That it works is due partly to the actors’ restraint, and partly to Buffini’s understated writing. “This hand…”, says Rochester, as he recognises Jane for the last time. It is all he needs to say.

The film’s makers play up the Gothic elements: nothing new there, although the hideous screams and banging doors are fairly well done. I yearn for someone to go the whole hog and make a film called Jane Eyre meets Dracula starring Frank Langella and Barbara Windsor. Perhaps that’s the problem with costume dramas. They’re easy to ridicule because they’re so incorrigibly middlebrow, and after watching the BBC ones it can seem that they contain the same actors, the same production values and the same general effect - being in most cases to make one feel grateful to be alive in the 21st century. There are times when the thought of watching yet another makes me feel nauseous, as if I were being asked to eat a tonne of Turkish delight. But I can’t see what’s wrong with wanting to hear the same story retold. Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is well executed, and its selling point is to be slightly more faithful to the novel than its predecessors. If the full house with which I watched the film in Washington is anything to go by, this well-loved tale will always find an audience on whom to work its magic.

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