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As fans of Charlotte Brontë’s literary masterpiece, Jane Eyre, know all too well, the wait for a film adaptation anywhere near as good as the book has been long and disappointing. Here’s a project that was virtually crying out to be remade, as every cinematic attempt to-date had fallen far short of doing justice to the classic tale. Thankfully, a young director named Cary Fukunaga teamed with screenwriter Moira Buffini to tackle the formidable task that has stymied filmmakers before them.
The result is a new version of Jane Eyre that, while it falls just short of achieving the incomparable richness and complexity of the novel, captures the essence and depth of Brontë’s story better than any previous film adaptation. More importantly, the filmmakers do what none of its predecessors had managed—they let go of the notion to produce a carbon-copy of the book, and are thereby able to make an artistically excellent film, worthy of Brontë’s inspiration.
Jane Eyre is no simple tale to tell on-screen. The novel features some of the most layered and challenging characters in all literature, and not least among them is the title character, Jane Eyre. The film, like the novel, explores the early life of this young woman who starts as a victimized orphan and journeys on—surviving through intelligence, determination, and grit—to become a governess to the ward of a rich gentleman named Edward Fairfax Rochester.
Thornfield Hall, Rochester’s dark and cavernous mansion becomes a home to Jane, but an uneasy one, as she learns of secrets that may be hidden there. Among the most mysterious elements is Rochester himself, a mercurial and moody enigma who takes an interest in Jane, as she is mutually intrigued by him. Life for Jane, however, is never easy, and she has no notion that she will be tested as never before with the joy and heartrending sorrow that awaits her at Thornfield.
Before this film version, moviemakers attempting Jane Eyre adaptations fell into the trap of trying to duplicate the novel in cinematic form, somehow crunching the enormous length and details of Brontë’s book into the standard 90-120 minute movie. The result of such efforts was mostly a high-speed viewing experience, in which viewers feel like they’re watching a blurred story on fast-forward, or a dry, piecemeal documentation that lacked the artistry and emotional grip of the original tale.
But the film genre is vastly distinct from nineteenth-century literature and requires a different storytelling approach. Judging from their adaptation, Fukunaga and Buffini are aware of this distinction, and they avoid the normative pitfall by being brave enough to make the adjustments needed to enable Jane Eyre to work well as a movie. Before Brontë fans scream in dismay at this news, rest assured that this movie version is highly respectful of the source material, and doesn’t introduce any significant material or modify the actual order of events.
The adjustment the filmmakers’ dare is a brilliant change to the narrative order, plunging viewers into Jane’s life at her most difficult and pivotal moment, rather than telling the story in the linear fashion of the novel and previous film versions. Without modifying the sequence of events or damaging the structure of Brontë’s work, Fukunaga and Buffini simply present the earlier incidents through extended flashbacks, shown from the later point of greater dramatic interest. This simple, seemingly obvious tweak solves the pacing issues that crippled other adaptations, while vamping up the mystery and emotional interest of the story (particularly in moments when the film could have otherwise felt slow and boring).
The risk of this narrative approach is that the story could become confusing or disjointed. In this instance, filmmakers handle their chosen structure well and use it to great advantage—smoothly interweaving past events with current ones, keeping the viewer on track through motivated and well-placed transitions. Jane Eyre never loses its dramatic hold on viewers, as well as the sense of mystery and the feeling that there is something unknown and much at stake for Jane.
Yet the dramatic impact of this adaptation is only partially due to the clever solution to the story’s structure difficulties. The movie’s filmmakers seem to have hit the casting jackpot in finding two actors perfectly suited and skilled enough to handle the complex, demanding roles of Jane and Rochester. Many a strong actor has tackled these roles, but most were either a poor fit for the characters or could not quite manage to authentically fill out such intricate roles.
Mia Wasikowska brings Brontë’s Jane to life on the screen with her complicated blend of courage, tenacity, quietness, and wit. Unlike actors of some other versions, Wasikowska does not overlook the youthful innocence that lives in Brontë’s Jane, despite her toughness and harsh history, but manages to blend and hide it under the serious, pensive demeanor that usually dominates Jane’s façade. To be fully Jane, Wasikowska must be at once intelligent, withdrawn, and distant, while harboring beneath her cool exterior a burning passion that is waiting and yearning to break free. With a remarkable subtlety, Wasikowska communicates all those traits and more as Jane develops and grows during the film.
Wasikowska is aided in her performance by the advantage of playing opposite Michael Fassbender as Rochester. Again, we have here an actor who is peerless in the role. Rochester is a highly dramatic character who can easily be either overplayed or underplayed. Fassbender does neither, hitting the bulls-eye of this character’s core reality and motivation. In an impressive balancing act, the nuances of the contradictions that define this character (ferocity, levity, sarcasm, kindness, passion, gentleness, to name a few) are believably realized in Fassbender’s performance.
Fassbender is so convincing as Rochester that even at the moments when the character is most wildly passionate or inscrutable, he is unforgettably real, compelling viewers to confront the charismatic puzzle that is Rochester. The only fault to be found in the casting of Wasikowska and Fassbender is that Brontë purists could argue the actors are both too good-looking for their characters, as neither is described as physically beautiful in the novel.
Most films are made or broken by their stars, and that is particularly true of the extremely character-motivated Jane Eyre. The stand-out performances of the two leads are supported by well-known actors like Judi Dench and Jamie Bell who add star caliber and screen power of their own, even in their limited roles. Other production values are equally high, with Fukunaga’s creative vision setting the bar for the beautifully artistic cinematography, the stunning locations and sets, as well as the historical accuracy of costumes and production design. The musical score by Dario Marianelli is also of note, artfully underscoring the action.
In addition, Fukunaga honors the original content by, for the most part, resisting the introduction of modern additions to the story that would sully the ethical and godly stance so prominent in Brontë’s novel. The most glaring exception is the featuring of a nude painting that hangs in a hallway at Thornfield. Jane looks at this painting in several scenes and studies it close-up for one longer sequence. The inclusion of this painting, likely as some attempt to symbolically communicate unexpressed sexual desires, is unnecessary and bizarre. These moments subsequently stand out as scenes that should’ve been slashed in the cutting room, both from a storytelling and moral point of view.
Even so, the inclusion of this painting is offset by the many redemptive qualities of the film. Mysterious, intelligent, and emotionally compelling, the story is timeless in its appeal and the issues it explores. The obstacles Jane faces and the way she handles them provide ample opportunity for the exploration of such topics as God, morality, truth, love, romance, wealth, poverty, and hardship. Though this film version does not elaborate on Jane’s belief in God as much as the novel does, her faith is still implied and apparently gives her the courage to stand strong and do what is right, even when it costs her dearly.
Parents, however, should be cautious about letting younger children watch this film, due to mature themes and dark elements. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] Among these aspects are scenes of children being physically and emotionally abused at the hand of cruel adults who mask such treatment as “discipline.” These moments are not overly graphic or horrifically brutal, but are realistic enough to be disturbing. At another point, a man is shown bleeding from rather gory gouges and scratches.
But for mature audiences, Jane Eyre has a lot to offer, not the least of which is a rare experience of artistic, thought-provoking entertainment. No, the movie doesn’t quite achieve everything that Brontë could boast of her literary masterpiece, yet it accurately portrays the heart of Brontë’s story and characters, resulting not just in a great adaptation, but a terrific film. Congrats, Jane Eyre fans—the wait is finally over.
Check out these similar titles:
Persuasion (Sony Pictures Classics, 1995)
Sense and Sensibility (Columbia Pictures, 1995)
Anne of Avonlea (Sullivan Entertainment, 1987)