Theatrical Review: JANE EYRE

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
March 9th, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5

Writers: Moira Buffini (screenplay), Charlotte Brontë (novel)
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins
Studio: Focus Features

It’s hard to say if there is room for yet another take on Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre, as there is already a stunning excess of Eyre-inspired work. And not just the traditional film and miniseries adaptations, but a number of “inspired by” sequels and prequels, retellings through other characters’ eyes, even a graphic novel and a musical. But amidst such a sea of send-ups, what could possible be more subversive than a straight telling of the Victorian tale? In only his second feature film, director Cary Fukunaga doesn’t mess around with flashy elements (there are, to be sure, no vampires to slay in this telling of the story) and delivers a melodic and melancholy film that attempts to honor Bronte’s epic story of love lost, love found, and secrets abound.

For those unfamiliar with Bronte’s book, when we meet Jane Eyre, she is a cast aside orphan, broke and unloved, sent to grow up at Lowood School, as dictated by her cruel Aunt Reed. She eventually moves on to Mr. Edward Rochester’s Thornfield Hall to tutor his French ward, Adele, and Jane discovers more than she could ever bargain for – both good and bad. Bronte’s classic is equally segmented into the three main portions of Jane’s young life – her time at Lowood School, her tenure as governess at Thornfield Hall, and the period of her life post-Thornfield, spent with the Rivers family. However, most adaptations focus solely on the Thornfield period, the time marked by Jane’s burgeoning romance with the dashing and mysterious Mr. Rochester. Fukunaga’s film works from a script from Moira Buffini, which gives more time to the generally overlooked segments, hoping to lead us to a great sense of Jane and what has made her so.

Fukunaga clearly has a keen understanding of what a JANE EYRE should look, feel, and sound like. Jane Eyre the novel is a Victorian work, but it feels Gothic work through and through, and Fukunaga does not hold back when it comes to the deep, dark, and dastardly elements of his source material. Jane’s story is a romantic one, but it’s also unabashedly tragic and frequently just downright disheartening. Fans of Fukunaga’s impressive debut, SIN NOMBRE, will see much of his style throughout JANE EYRE – an impressive use of light, wide tableaus of landscape, and an unshakable sense of impenetrable isolation.

Mia Wasikowska is a very fitting Jane, plain and undone in look and manner, headstrong and steadfastly dedicated to her moral sensibility in nature, gloriously ruined when the proper time comes. Young Jane has been schooled to be “contrite and self-denying,” and her own ethical code forbids her from acting out on her most passionate impulses. As a child, orphan Jane was treated as less than a human – referred to as “it” by her own aunt, so when she is granted glimpses of happiness and companionship, she cherishes them, even if her dedication is never made fully obvious.

And while Michael Fassbender is certainly a much younger and more conventionally attractive Rochester than most fans are used to, he properly infuses his character with the sort of recklessness-edging-on-madness essential to a classic Rochester. Jamie Bell makes a pitch-perfect St. John Rivers – at turns sympathetic and loathsome, both misguided and well-meaning. The film continues to brim with exceptional acting talent even in smaller bits – featuring no less than Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, and Imogen Poots in supporting roles.

Bronte’s work is positively jammed with themes and subjects – so many that it’s nearly impossible to pin down the ultimate meaning and reason of the book. Should we take it simply as a love story, or a feminist work, or a dissertation on the implications of madness? What about its ruminations on morality, or the importance of home and family, even the impediments constructed by laws? Fukunaga condenses his film down to its most basic elements – a story about a woman so “good” that her love can change a “bad” man. But JANE EYRE stumbles because of its economy – large patches of the novel are trimmed down, making it difficult for people unfamiliar with the story to completely involve themselves in Jane and Rochester’s truly epic romance.

Though Wasikowska and Fassbender are both more than proficient in their roles, they don’t have the piercing, epic chemistry to fully invest us in something that, at its worst moments, feels like romance by way of Stockholm Syndrome. Though they don’t physically mesh in a fully engaging way, when it comes to their mental sparring, Wasikowska and Fassbender admirably embody Jane and Rochester. In so many ways, however, this meeting of the minds, this equality between the two, is the key to their love affair. Had the film paid more time to the roots of their romance, I suspect the strength of their love would have being significantly more meaningfully and touching.

Of course, what lurks in the middle of JANE EYRE is a secret – a ruinous one, and the key to understanding Rochester and all his grand-standing claims that he is unable to ever be truly happy. But is there enough tension befitting the startling truth that must be ultimately revealed? Fukunaga stirs his audience with hints of something supernatural, something powerful just lurking behind the curtain, but it never fully develops into something captivating. The same can be said for his just-off-the-mark JANE EYRE.

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