Article/ Jane Eyre: A Fine Romance

This thrilling adaptation of Jane Eyre captures the oppressive atmosphere of Charlotte Brontë’s gothic classic

 By Ian Haydn Smith

Over the course of the last 100 years, there have been more than 20 screen adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, beginning with Theodore Marsten’s 1910 film, which was the first of at least 6 pre-sound versions. Since then, the story has been adapted for non-English language audiences as far afield as Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil and India. Of the English and American adaptations, Jane and Mr Rochester have been played by Joan Fontaine, Susannah York, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samantha Morton, Orson Welles, William Hurt, Timothy Dalton and Toby Stephens.

However, for all the star talent involved in the cinematic versions, the best adaptations have, up until now, been produced for television (the one exception is I Walked with a Zombie, although Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 classic took significant liberties with the source text). If Brontë’s novel has often been ill-served by its big screen incarnations, whether through uninspired direction or lacklustre performances, Cary Fukunaga’s new adaptation, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, has dramatically changed the trend. It is a vibrant film, visually arresting and utterly compelling.

Although Moira Buffini’s text still features hints of the gothic, her restructuring of the story skilfully elides the novel’s more indulgent moments of serendipity. We begin with Jane’s journey from Thornfield Hall and across the barren Yorkshire moors, chancing upon St John Rivers’ residence, by which time she is barely conscious. The film then tells Jane’s story in flashback. The result is a heightening of tension and, for those unaware of Jane’s plight, a sense of mystery over how this young and seemingly vulnerable woman found herself in such a predicament. Buffini’s script retains the terse language of the novel, but also gives the drama an immediacy that many previous films were lacking.

Cary Fukunaga might have seemed an odd choice to direct Jane Eyre. His 2009 feature debut, Sin Nombre, told the story of one Honduran family’s attempts to escape the clutches of a Mexican gang and start a new life north of the border. A taut and often violent travelogue, the film explodes with passion and fury. But it excels because of Fukanaga’s skill at blending a powerful narrative with a strong sense of place, the qualities needed to fully realise Brontë’s text. As he exploited the sun-drenched fauna of Latin America for Sin Nombre, so Fukunaga makes the most of Yorkshire’s windswept moors and the austerity of 19th century English life.

The film’s atmosphere is also conveyed through a stark use of light. Echoing Stanley Kubrick’s refusal to use anything but natural or digetic – on screen – light for Barry Lyndon, Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman shroud each scene in shadows. Even character’s faces are often seen only in half- light, suggesting darker thoughts or sinister secrets they do not wish to be revealed. The tension of Jane’s first formal meeting with Rochester is relayed through Jane’s – and our own – inability to fully see his face. The hidden expression adds more mystery to the aura that surrounds her new employer.

As Jane and Rochester, Wasikowska and Fassbender are a perfect pairing. With each encounter, the performers reveal the complexity of their characters, pealing away the colder exterior and exposing two damaged souls. They are given excellent support by Judi Dench as the stoic Mrs Fairfax, Jamie Bell as St John Rivers, Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Reed and a startling Valentina Cervi as Bertha Mason.

Cary Fukunaga and Moira Buffini’s adaptation brings Brontë’s bildungsroman to life in a way that feels like you are witnessing the story for the first time.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Jane Eyre screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 9 September