Jane Eyre (2011)

Dir: Cary Fukunaga
Writers: Charlotte Brontë (novel), Moira Buffini (screenplay)
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench

More adaptations of classic books – do we really need them? I sit firmly in the yes camp, and films like Jane Eyre prove why.

Jane Eyre, orphaned, cruelly treated, beaten and abused by her relations, endures years at a vicious boarding school run on Christian cruelty. On finally leaving years of abuse behind, she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, an old, imposing and remote house surrounded by the wild Yorkshire countryside. She is employed by the mysterious Mr Rochester, a brooding romantic hero who captures Jane’s imagination, and is in turn captivated by her. It is Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, the ancestor of later classics like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and often considered an early or proto-feminist novel. It has, unsurprisingly, been adapted for the screen over twenty times.

This latest adaptation is directed by Cary Fukunaga, a man of thirty-three who can be recognised by his black, squared spectacles borrowed from the 1960s. He’s a man who has been described as the “hipster director du jour“, and there’s certainly a reflection of what could be termed “hipster values” within his film – a combination of the vintage (Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel) with a fresh attitude towards the source material and a firm break from the period films of the last few decades. This is a trend which has been on the increase in recent years; Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice was colourful and vibrant, with a young cast and sweeping, almost loving cinematography focused on the English countryside. Period cinema spent most of the 1980s and 90s grasping for a pastoral aesthetic, but in a paint-by-numbers way that reflected the repressed societies in the source material, all buttoned up, tight cravats and tighter corsets. The stillness of those years has been swept aside, replaced with a rawer, more intense vision of the natural landscape that reflects passions rather than represses them. This is especially prevalent with the Brontës and their sweeping Yorkshire moor novels, but even Anne Elliot, Jane Austen’s quietest heroine, has been redrawn in this new 21st-century approach, and Fukunaga gives the same treatment to Jane Eyre.

Our first glimpse of Jane is her ordeal on the moors, a severe break with the original narrative structure that plunges us in mid-story. In 164 years, this has never been done before, and this newly-traditional untraditional approach persists throughout. Re-rendering the narrative so completely is statement enough, and in the postmodern era originality is a highly sought-after commodity. Yet all the original narrative threads are preserved, even if they are tweaked a little. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 version cut out St. John Rivers almost completely, a grave error that muted the entire climax of the love story between Jane and Rochester – Fukunaga’s film gives the same importance to St. John as Charlotte Brontë’s novel, and yet it feels far more creative as an adaptation. Indeed, this version includes all the bare bones of the novel, sticking closely to the story – it is only the sequence in which events are shown which is different, and yet the effect is huge, and immediately engaging. 21st century adaptations are forever reaching out for something new to snare our interest, like the hook in a song or the ellipsis in a book synopsis, and this film provides it immediately with Jane’s early morning escape from Thornfield.

Jane herself has been played by a huge number of actresses, thought with its history and place in literary culture it isn’t hard to see why the book has been returned to so many times. Mia Wasikowska is the Jane of the new millennium, a performance that was frankly surprising in its perfection. Wasikowska is somehow able to master Jane’s steady, lucid gaze and yet never hide her passion, as though she’s simply waiting to break it out for the right occasion. This is not a Jane stripped of emotion by her past, simply fitting in with the constraints around her. The slow, measured tone of Wasikowska’s speech may be the result of trying to maintain her accent (something which she does superbly), but it compliments the character and the subtle, quiet emotion of the film perfectly. “Am I a machine without feelings?” she asks Rochester in a speech lifted directly (lovingly) from the book. It is perhaps the most passionate exclamation we have seen from Jane since her childhood, but never overplayed, something that can be said of Wasikowska’s entire performance. Jane Eyre has never been a character to be known inside out, and Fukunaga and Wasikowska mirror this perfectly in direction and performance.

Michael Fassbender’s casting as Rochester presents an immediate problem: he’s too handsome. “My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth,–all energy, decision, will,–were not beautiful, according to rule,” apparently. But this is still Hollywood, and more than that, his performance more than makes up for the pretty face. Rochester’s physical presence onscreen rests just outside of intimidating and he is quietly intense, with a low-pitched voice that gives even his happier moments a certain roughness; there is a constant air of unpredictability about him, a perfect suit to Brontë’s Byronesque hero. The natural chemistry between the two leads is practically visible, always simmering between them, and gives what could have been a far quieter, hushed film another level of energy. Fassbender captures Rochester’s unthinking possession of Jane, and yet portrays a man in love without ever compromising the essence of the character. In the rawest of Rochester’s moments Fassbender is superb, portraying a sense  of confusion, almost an inability to comprehend just how deeply he feels for Jane, and yet he never loses sight of the innate arrogance of the character.

Restraint has been levelled at this adaptation as a criticism – Dario Marianelli’s score is sparse, characterised by a single violin, and Jane’s reactions are often measured and controlled. Rochester’s rage is quiet, voiced in low-toned monosyllables and often not at all. But the passions of Brontë’s novel were always conducted as such, and it seems silly to call out one of the novel’s defining characteristics as an area in which the film falls down. The chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender simmers constantly and their characters’ relationship is very much recognisable from the text. The supporting cast too match the calibre of the leads; Judi Dench is a simple yet apt choice as the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax (and a link to those early period dramas), and Simon McBurney and Sally Hawkins are perfect foils to Jane as the horrible schoolmaster Mr Brocklehurst and her cold aunt, Mrs Reed. Jamie Bell is stellar in his role as St. John Rivers, and the character is perhaps even better realised here than in the original novel; as Wasikowska does with Jane, Bell imbues St. John with a quiet passion that, though it may burn for religion more than love, is present in a way not realised in other adaptations, and his chemistry with Wasikowska adds an extra dimension that completes the not-quite love triangle of Jane, St. John and Rochester.

Fukunaga’s film captures the essence of the book, managing to combine an almost Victorian sparseness with passion and energy, a slow burn led by two performances that keep tensions tight throughout the film. It is crafted, visually stunning and commendably innovative, and keeps the essence of the original novel burning quietly at its centre; a loving homage that never hesitates to become a treasure all of its own.