Director: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench
The familiarity that audiences generally have with the story of Jane Eyre should make it a difficult novel to successfully adapt. There have been so many versions of it in both film and television – between the two mediums a new version comes out every five to ten years – that it ought to be difficult to bring any new perspective to it, to make it in any way fresh. And yet, here is director Cary Fukunaga’s take (working from a screenplay adapted by Moira Buffini), a glorious looking adaptation that feels like a breath of fresh air. Here is an adaptation that gets it absolutely right.
Jane Eyre is the story of an orphan, unloved and mistreated by her guardian and aunt, Mrs. Reid (Sally Hawkins in an uncharacteristically villainous role), and sent away to a school where she’s treated with harshness and brutality. As a grown woman Jane (Mia Wasikowska) becomes governess to Adèle Varens (Romy Settbon Moore), the ward of Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender), a brooding man whose presence dominates Thornfield Manor and, eventually, Jane’s heart. Sensing in Jane his intellectual and spiritual equal, Rochester falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. There’s just one totally minor and inconsequential detail that he’s forgotten to mention.
I’m of course referring to the mad woman in the attic, Rochester’s wife, Bertha, whose secret presence gives the story its gothic, ghost story element. The revelation of Bertha’s existence sends Jane running and, having assumed the name “Jane Elliot,” she becomes the teacher at a country school with the help of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell). With Rivers and his two sisters Jane attempts to create the familial connections that have always been just out of her reach, but Rivers is not content to accept Jane “as a sister” and instead wants to marry her and bring her with him to India where he’s to do missionary work. Faced with the prospect of a loveless marriage, Jane runs again, this time drawn back to Thornfield Manor and all its demons.
One of the things that makes this version of Jane Eyre work so well is that it doesn’t approach the story as a simple period romance. Jane Eyre is essentially a story about agency and Fukunaga and Buffini make that element the film’s driving force. Though the film does not feature the novel’s most famous line (“Reader, I married him,” a line which underscores that Jane is an active character rather than a passive one), it does emphasize the importance of language in establishing Jane’s sense of agency. Consider, for example, the two proposals. St. John’s is less a question than it is an order and when Jane objects he dismisses the idea of emotional compatibility as unimportant. Rochester’s proposal, on the other hand, is one that does not offer Jane the opportunity to become a possession or an appendage, but rather one which puts her in a position of power. Rochester literally offers her his hand and tells her that she’s his “equal and likeness.” He offers her partnership rather than expecting subservience, which is why she can return to him without it seeming like a compromise of her morals or values (though the convenient fact of Bertha’s death helps, too).
Thematically this is a very strong adaptation that captures the spirit of its source, but it’s a success on a technical level as well. The film is photographed to make use of a lot of natural light, allowing it to look alternately lush and gloomy. It’s a beautiful looking film and the cinematography does a great deal to build atmosphere, particularly in scenes which take place at Thornfield. The story of Jane Eyre is so well-known that for most audiences any adaptation will hold few surprises, but Fukunaga is able to craft a surprising degree of tension out of a lot of familiar territory, which helps drive the story forward so successfully.
I’ve seen a few of the different versions of Jane Eyre and I usually find that casting of the roles of Jane and Rochester is problematic, in that most adaptations are able to get it right with one character but totally wrong with the other. On paper neither Wasikowska nor Fassbender should work (the film does what it can to make Wasikowska look “plain” while staying within the confines of Hollywood’s definition of beauty, but there is no masking Fassbender’s inherent hunkiness), but there is such harmony in their performances and they bring such life to their characterizations that any doubt about their casting quickly falls away. There’s really no fault to be found with this version of Jane Eyre; it’s just about perfect.