Let’s be upfront here: adapting a novel by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or one of the Brontë sisters — especially as a period piece — is pretty low-hanging fruit, dramatically speaking. They’re old enough to be well-established as classics, and yet modern enough to be widely relatable. Not being plays themselves, their language is far less set in stone than Shakespeare’s. There’s plenty of over-the-top melodrama, and the scenery is easily chewed. Indeed, most of it has been chewed over already.
So Cary Fukunaga hasn’t exactly set the bar very high in the first place in making Jane Eyre. And yet it’s nice to see that he manages to deliver a film that reflects its source material this well.
The story is pretty well-known, but just in case you slept through English in high school, let’s go over it again. Jane Eyre (Amelia Clarkson as a child, Mia Wasikowska as a young woman) is an orphan left in the care of her aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead (Sally Hawkins). Mrs. Reed gets rid of Jane by sending her away to Lowood School for Girls, where she is still socially isolated on top of the poor conditions. After eight years of ill treatment, Jane leaves and takes a position as the governess to a young French girl living at Thornfield Hall, a manor kept by one Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and owned by the elusive Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
Over time, Edward and Jane grow close. And yet, as Edward is a proper Byronic hero, he remains dark, brooding, and aloof. On top of that, the manor seems haunted by odd sounds and events, including a fire that almost takes Edward’s life. And Edward isn’t exactly forthcoming, either about what’s going on in the house or about his own feelings.
Fukunaga makes great use of the Derbyshire countryside. Much of the film is spent outside, in stunningly expansive dreary grey vistas. Unfortunately, we’re often following someone walking, which Fukunaga insists on shooting with a hand-held camera. Even stationary shots have a tendency to jiggle back and forth; it’s the single biggest annoyance in the whole film.
Fassbender is a natural as Edward. A glower is never far from his face, and he embodies the spirit of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. In particular, he’s far superior to William Hurt’s mere eccentricity in the 1996 adaptation. Dench, however, is far underused. It’s going to be a shame if she’s been reduced to nothing but housekeepers and nannies.
But of course all eyes are on Wasikowska. She does give one of the better portrayals of Jane on film, although it’s far from the subtlest role in the world. It’s a step in the right direction, along with last year’s supporting role in The Kids Are All Right, away from the train wreck of Alice in Wonderland. And yet I still can’t quite see the same actress who played Sophie to such effect in the first season of In Treatment.
Still, it’s as good a version of Jane Eyre as we’re likely to see without doing something drastic like reading the original novel. Even Mr. Rochester couldn’t be so mean as to inflict that onerous task on an unwary public.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s debatable, but I’m going to give it a pass.