After nearly a year of waiting, finally I got to see the latest version of one of my favorite classic love stories, Jane Eyre. The oft-filmed Charlotte Brontë’s gothic novel has been adapted into tv and motion pictures more than two dozen times, not to mention countless theater work of the same name. It’s amazing that after its first publication in London in 1847, one hundred and sixty four years later the story still resonates and beguiles people the world over.
Even if you haven’t read the book, I presume most people are familiar with the story of a young governess who falls for her employer who’s twice her age, the ultimate Byronic hero Edward Rochester. Brontë’s Jane Eyre is decidedly darker than many romantic period dramas, such as those by Jane Austen or even Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, there are elements of mystery and horror that plague the protagonists’ lives. 33-year-old director Cary Fukunaga is fully aware of it and makes the most of those elements into his sophomore effort (his first was the acclaimed immigrant-themed indie Sin Nombre).
Instead of a straight review, for this purpose I’d like to list what works and what doesn’t in this adaptation. It’s longer than usual because there’s just a lot to cover, so bear with me.
• Fukunaga’s direction – He preferred natural light for much of the film, forgoing camera lighting and instead opted for candles which created the proper dark, moody and gloomy atmosphere that matches Rochester’s temperament perfectly. He used some hand-held camera work to great effect — Jane walking through the corridor, narrow gates, etc. — but not too much so that it became distracting. The extremely gloomy and rainy setting give the beautiful Spring-y backdrop during the day scenes much more impact, and they seem to mimic the sentiment the protagonists are feeling.
Thornfield Hall, Rochester’s expansive mansion looked like something Count Dracula could comfortably settle in. It almost became its own character in the story and adds the necessary spookiness we come to expect from this Gothic tale.
• Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax – When does Dame Judi ever disappoint? Apparently never. Even in small roles, the scenes she’s in are one of the best ones in the movie. There was an important scene involving Jane and Rochester where Mrs. Fairfax didn’t utter a single word, but she made quite an impact just with her expression. With that bonnet and frumpy frock, it’s hard to imagine she’s the same woman playing James Bond’s formidable boss, M.
• Mia Wasikowska as Jane – A lot of the issues I have with literary adaptation is that the supposedly plain heroine usually ends up being played actresses who are too glamorous for the role. Fortunately in this one, Wasikowska was believable as a plain young girl, though she obviously is a pretty girl. At 18, she’s also the perfect age for the role. If I were to nitpick though, she’s not exactly ‘little’ as she’s described in the novel as Rochester doesn’t quite tower over her.
In any case, I thought she did a wonderful job carrying the film. She captures the essence of the strong-willed character who holds her own against her much older subject of her affection, and one who despite ‘not being well-acquainted with men’ doesn’t seem intimidated by them.
• Michael Fassbender as Rochester – In many ways, we evaluate a Jane Eyre adaptation by its Rochester, and as long as we use that ‘calculation,’ I think he measures up quite well. He has a strong screen presence and is the kind of actor who’s usually the best thing even in a so-so film (i.e. Centurion), and he makes the best of what’s given to him for the role. By that I mean, given the relatively short screen time, which is less than what I had hoped to see, he was able to make us care for Rochester.
Which brings me to… …
• This cliff-notes version feels way too fast. With a complex story like Jane Eyre, no doubt it’d be a challenge for any filmmaker, no matter how talented, to pare it down into a two-hour movie. So it’s inevitable that this film just moves along too quick for me, it’s almost at breakneck pace! Of course that is not Fukunaga’s fault and he really made the most of it, but still this version just leaves me wanting more. I guess this is perhaps a more ‘accessible’ version for the crowd that otherwise would not watch Jane Eyre. But to me, the story is compelling enough that an extra half-hour would only enhance the viewing experience and allow enough time for the characters to develop authentic connection.
• Dialog omission. Again, this is not a criticism as much as a ‘wish list’ on my part, and perhaps a result of being ‘spoiled’ by the comprehensive 1983 version (which at 5.5 hours is perhaps the longest adaptation ever). Of course it’s impossible to include every single dialog from the book, but I was hoping at least some of the important ones are kept. The famous quotes such as “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me”, “Do as I do: trust in God and yourself”, “Reader, I married him” are not spoken in this adaptation.
There’s also an issue with the way some of the lines were delivered, I just find it lacking bite, y’know that certain oomph that an actor does to bring those timeless words to life.
• Jamie Bell seems miscast. Now, keep in mind I really like Jamie as an actor and have said so many times in this blog. However, I don’t feel he’s right for the role of St. John (Sin-Jin) Rivers. First, when you’ve already got someone as striking as Fassbender as Rochester, I’d think the casting agent would have to find someone much fairer than he. No offense to Jamie, but that’s not the case here and he certainly doesn’t fit the book description of ‘tall, fair with blue eyes, and with a Grecian profile.’ Now, physical appearance aside, he also lack the solemn and pious sensibility of a Christian missionary.
• Unconventional storyline – Moira Buffini’s script tells the story in flashback mode instead of following the novel’s linear storyline. The movie starts off right as Jane is leaving Thornfield, which is right smack dab where the main crisis of the story begins. Now, I can understand that it’s done to make it less boring rather than following the five distinct stages of the book faithfully. Yet it gets confusing at times to figure out which part happens in the past or present. I think for someone not familiar with the book, the shuffled timeline might be a bit tough to follow.
In conclusion, despite me leaving the theater wanting more, I really think this is a worthy adaptation. The production quality is really top notch, with gorgeous cinematography, affecting light work and music that serve the story well. There is even one scene of Jane and Rochester that Fukunaga took liberty with that’s quite tantalizing. It caught me off guard but wow, I must say that scene left me breathless and is an effective way to convey how much Jane longed for her true love.
But in the end, as far as Rochester is concerned, even though I adore the actor, Fassbender still hasn’t replaced Timothy Dalton as my favorite in the role. Sure, the production is much inferior to this one, but what makes a Jane Eyre story so fascinating and memorable are the heart-wrenching connection between the two main protagonists and the dialog spoken between them, so in that regard, the 1983 version is still the one to beat.
4 out of 5 reels
Those who’ve seen this one, feel free to offer your thoughts about the film. Also, if you’ve seen several adaptations, which one is your favorite?