Cary Fukunaga is an interesting new talent. Jane Eyre is his second major work, seemingly a distinct contrast to his first: the impressive Sin Nombre. Both, I suppose, are about outsiders, entering worlds they know nothing about, and trying desperately to keep their heads above water. But thematically, the similarities are so broad and vague that you would be forgiven for thinking that the two films are completely incompatible in any way: after all, one is about illegal immigration; the other, at its heart, is a love story!
And what a love story it is. Charlotte Bronte’s novel has been adapted countless times for television and cinema; yet the most obvious thing about this version is that Jane Eyre has never looked better on the silver screen. If there is one thing that we can pat ourselves on the back for, it is that we can produce the most gorgeous cinematography. This is not only in the context of a beautiful sunset, or radiant summer blossoms, but in shadows, and mist, and fog; the grey, murky winter light filtering through a window pane on to the wan, melancholy complexion of our heroine. Much of the film takes place in shadows and in darkness, where a flickering candle produces the only light, playing on the terrified gaze of the onlooker, as unseen specters creep about the corridors; yet Thornfield Hall will metamorphose from an oppressive, disquieting castle (not unlike those of gothic horror) to a place of joy and happiness during the film. But perhaps these are only illusionary qualities… Its final transformation may show it for what it always was.
All of this said, there are niggling problems with the editing and the cinematography. For example, in the novel (and every adaptation I’ve seen), Jane’s first journey to Thornfield Hall is laced with menace and foreboding (add some wolves and a supernatural ring of fire and we have Bram Stoker’s Dracula all over again). Yet Jane’s arrival here is rushed and clumsy. Of course, the film was inevitably going to be a condensed version of the novel – not every scene that Bronte penned could possibly make it into a 2 hour film, but certainly during the first half hour, dealing with Jane’s childhood and adolescence, it can seem a little rushed.
The plot is well known, so I won’t bother with the details: if you are unaware of it, so much the better. Watch it without knowing the intricacies of the plot and the iconic twist. Fukunaga is clever in the way in which he holds a great reverence for his source material without falling into the trap of following it blindly. He can pick and choose, and put his own stamp on it. Atmosphere is everything, and his adaptation has it in spades. The film begins and ends differently from the novel: Fukunaga starts in the middle, observing a distraught Jane Eyre fleeing from Thornfield, and ends just a little before the novel does (the final scene is inspired). Some have complained about the film being restrained, the implication being that Fukunaga toes the line between his adaptation being shrewdly concentrated and coldly desiccated. I’m perfectly happy to say that if that’s the case, Fukunaga stays firmly on the right side of that line.
Of course, I could go on about the lavish sets and production values, but it is, in the end, Mia Wasikowska that makes the film a success. What a vision she is as Jane Eyre, humble and vulnerable, but strong, determined and just – Bronte’s perfect heroine, and one of the great leading ladies of feminist literature. Michael Fassbender makes an adequate Rochester, but it is Mia who is the discovery here; from Tim Burton’s somewhat lacklustre adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, she has now, with Jane Eyre, cemented her status as one of the most exciting new actresses in contemporary cinema. The supporting cast is equally as impressive: Judi Dench (always reliable) plays Mrs. Fairfax, Jamie Bell is the preacher that Jane will meet a little later in the story (or, in this version, right at the beginning), and Sally Hawkins has a cameo as the young Jane’s rotten guardian, Mrs. Reed.
All things considered, this is a strong, solid adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance. I, for one, can’t wait for the new version of Emily’s Wuthering Heights to be released later this year!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (September ’11)