There’ll be swooning in the aisles with this new gothic romance version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic.
It’s a brave director who decides to take on a new film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel ‘Jane Eyre’, a work that has many fans who all have their own personal view of how it should look and feel, but it’s a work that also has fans of one of the numerous film or TV adaptations that have been made over the years. Personally, my reference for the work is the 1943 Robert Stevenson film starring Joan Fontaine as Jane, and Orson Welles as Rochester, which I like very much and inevitably found myself mentally comparing with this version. Everyone has their idea of how the film should look then, which makes it an even braver decision, not to mention a risky one, to hand the making of a new version over to an American filmmaker whose only previous feature, Sin Nombre, was a thriller about Central American immigrants trying to gain entry to the USA. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Cary Joji Fukunaga at least manages to bring a fresh perspective to a familiar story with this new version of Jane Eyre, but the film ultimately succeeds through good casting and a fine script which has a keen outlook for the structure and themes of the work.
It’s hard to see this initially in Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, the BBC Films logo during the opening credits already establishing certain expectations towards how British period drama is depicted on the screen, the film opening moreover with the older Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing from a stately manor, running across the typically gloomy damp landscape of the English countryside only to arrive at the home of clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his family. Using a flashback device that is more cinematic than literary and deviating from the original structure is a risky way to start any new version of Jane Eyre, but it works, introducing characters who are to become important later, but it also captures Jane’s steely sense of determination, of self-denial and self-preservation and, most importantly I think, it finds a unique theme and structure in the sense of Jane always trying to run away from the past, but inevitably being drawn back.
What’s also noticeable about the film from the outset is how strongly the film establishes its own mood and character. It goes for a tone of dark gothic romance, not so much painting with light, as painting the landscapes with washes of mist and stippling of frost, the cold light streaming into rooms only to heighten the shadows in the corners. The colour of the landscape of the Midlands moreover seems to impose itself on the whole tone and character of film, seeping into the costumes and from there to the nature of the characters. The use of regional accents moreover, rather than the customary stage-school period drama accents, also lends a certain air of down-to-earth authenticity. The gothic qualities of the setting however are pushed almost into horror, with several shots calculated to make the viewer jump suddenly in their seats. The brooding dark romantic quality is certainly a trend in modern cinema with films like Twilight, but although those films have roots in the likes of ‘Wuthering Heights’, it’s questionable whether it’s appropriate for Jane Eyre. Bearing in mind what is locked away in a hidden wing of Thornfield – and most viewers will have some foreknowledge of what is to come – it is however fitting.
No matter how strong the setting, the structure, the laying-out of themes or the appropriateness of the production values, what’s going to make a new version of Jane Eyre work or not is the casting of the two principals and how good the chemistry is between them. It turns out that there are no worries on this front, and it could even well be that it is Wasikowska and Fassbender who are going to establish themselves firmly in the minds of many new viewers and some old fans of the novel as a definitive Jane and Rochester for our time. With an outwardly delicate and impassive and plain demeanour hiding depths of furious emotions, intelligence, strength and inner beauty, Mia Wasikowska is a compelling Jane, one whose skirting around Rochester and around the feelings that he arouses in her becomes perfectly comprehensible as well as inspiring the sympathy of the viewer. Personally, having seen Michael Fassbender play a similar dark, tormented figure with deep passions in François Ozon’s ersatz period-drama, Angel, I had little doubt about his ability to incarnate Rochester, and he certainly brings a dangerous intensity to the character. I have no doubt however that many female viewers will have even stronger views on the brooding, romantic qualities that Fassbender brings to the role.
As well cast and performed as the principal roles are, what helps bring out the nature of their characters, truthfully and faithfully to the original work, is the delicacy of the script (by Moira Buffini of Tamara Drewe fame) and the dialogue. There is no modernisation to make the language more easily relatable to a modern audience, there’s no unnecessary over-elaboration in the dialogue to put those feelings into words, but everything that you need to know about Jane and Rochester and their pasts is there in the bearing of the characters, in their mannerisms and in their relation to their surroundings (the costume, set-design and locations are impeccable). This allows the filmmakers to skip over the usual scene-setting and reduce the amount of time spent on Jane Eyre’s misery-filled childhood. The orphanage scenes might feel somewhat incomplete, but all that is essential about Jane’s childhood is covered effectively and related well through Amelia Clarkson’s young Jane and Sally Hawkins’ Mrs Reed. The emphasis here is on the older Jane, as it should be. If there are any doubts or niggles about what is left out or glossed over however, the true measure of the film is in its conclusion, and if you feel it as deeply as this one hits you, you know it’s got everything that’s important just right.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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