Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
By Roderick Heath
Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel has, unlike her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, thus far largely resisted attempts by filmmakers to transpose its multifaceted charms and subterranean perversities into worthy cinema. Whereas Wuthering Heights has received such memorable, sharply contrasting and complementary adaptations from the likes of William Wyler, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, and Kiju Yoshida, versions of Jane Eyre have tended to be disappointing and dryly handled. Even the seemingly perfectly cast 1944 version directed by Robert Stephenson, starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester, doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. Perhaps this is because there’s something defiant about the novel, which possesses elements of, and yet does not give itself over to, the same hallucinogenic romance-noir atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, whilst balancing elements of reportage-like exposure and moral symbolism within its own insistently dialectic structure: it’s the work of someone in constant interior argument with herself.
Jane, Brontë’s heroine, is one of the best ever put on paper, a fiercely self-contained young woman who operates according to her own moral compass regardless of whether the world is in accord. The novel’s finale both fulfills and subverts its own gothic-romantic reflexes in a peculiar series of anticlimaxes with curious sadomasochistic overtones. The promise of another film version hardly set the world on fire, and yet this new adaptation struck me as by far the best stab at Classics Illustrated cinema in several years. It’s surprisingly well-cast, with two of the best up-and-coming actors in the business, and equally well-directed by the California-born Fukunaga, who had previously helmed the admired Sin Nombre (2009). Fukunaga seemingly made a great leap in subject matter in moving from contemporary third-world experience to well-thumbed library shelf filler, and yet perhaps not so great after all.
Part of the reason why Fukunaga’s film works better than other adaptations is because he understands the dialectic nature of the story. He pitches his adaptation, consequently, both on a level of sharply composed realism, with an emphasis on physical environs and extremes, which helps give back to the material a grounding in immediacy, whilst allowing hints of stylisation, to evoke the psychological and expressionistic elements of the novel, to come forth without being hoary. The period rural England glimpsed in the opening scenes practically conjures a sensation of wind chill and ice burn as Jane (Mia Wasikowska) flees from Thornfield Hall into the embrace of a rural landscape that offers no sustenance to the outcast. The underlying paranoia of so many of the “classic” novels of the early 19th century is of the fate of the social castaway in a civilised land completely inimical to multiple forms of outsider; it’s easy to miss the often-shouted note of social protest in adapting such works. This Jane Eyre restores some of the immediacy and anger sucked out of most such adaptations through the figure of Jane, who tries to keep a grip on her Christian charity and also her outspoken honesty in circumstances where people try to subordinate one and destroy the other.
You can also see the influence on such writing looping back to its roots through the Harry Potter stories in the opening scenes in which Jane is assaulted by her spoilt cousin and, when she sticks up for herself, is exiled to the remote and gloomy Red Room, where she freaks out so intensely, believing the stories hurled at her by vengeful adults about ghosts and spectres, that she knocks herself out cold in beating at the door. The vision of Jane as someone driven by such an intense sense of justice and survival instinct that she’s almost self-destructive comes into immediate focus. This sits alongside the observation that her grim childhood (Amelia Clarkson as young Jane), which also includes being sent to a death camp in the guise of a school where girls, including her best friend Helen Burns (Freya Parks), expire from pneumonia in the parsimonious climes, actually arms her for future travails with an uncommon rigour, a fact she senses and forgives.
Fukunaga attempts artfully, though not entirely successfully, to downplay the novel’s loss of momentum in its long third act, when Jane finds aid and shelter with rural pastor St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters Diana and Mary (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), by commencing with this plot point and using the licence of cinema to both disperse these scenes and retain their narrative meaning—Jane’s capacity for gratitude and perseverance, the way St. John subtly shows up the lacks of a more seemingly spiritual type of man as petty and narrow. It also allows Fukunaga to explicate Jane’s childhood and early experiences in fragmented flashbacks, allowing him to jump between periods without laboured narrative grammar, particularly inspired in one moment that reduces years of abuse to a single crack of a cane against her back. Jane is thus exiled when she falls afoul of her spiteful aunt, Mrs. Reed (an unusually cast Sally Hawkins), whose feelings of familial responsibility towards kin are easily discounted in the face of a girl who insistently mirrors back a lack of charity and decency. Jane survives her education and adolescence and takes the post of governess at Thornfield to school the French-speaking, rather daffy young Adèle (Romy Settbon Moor), and encounters ‘umble ‘ousekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (a nicely subdued Judi Dench) and her personal dark marauder riding out of the mist, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
Wasikowska, with an uncommon capacity to seem shrinkingly plain and luminescently beautiful from shot to shot, emphasises Jane’s innate decency with an edge of sullen, clipped, subtle resentment she tries not to let dominate her personality and hinted in the way she gives Jane a Midlands accent, rather than the “received pronunciation” for proper, educated English. Rochester is a difficult part to play, easy to push too far towards monstrous Byronic cliché or expose as a himbo fantasy. But Fassbender tackles the character with a blend of harshly honest force and pained discomfort within his own skin, with a faint edge of trapped bohemian energy and the intense hate of lies clashing with his beholdenness to a man who perpetuates one enormous lie to secure his future happiness. He’s both prisoner and driver of the steely rivets holding together patriarchal, conformity-driven Christian England that Fukunaga goes on to realise with effectively eerie scenes; Jane becomes witness to the manifestations of Rochester’s dark secret, the Minotaur at the heart of his personal labyrinth, as she tends injured Mason (Harry Lloyd). Hearing menacing knocks and windy whistling in a splendidly paranoid scene, Jane rides out the night with fortitude, remindful that, amongst other things, Brontë bridged a gap between Gothic and psychological fiction.
A similarly strong scene with a fine control of point of view comes earlier when Jane is invited to join Rochester’s toff friends, including his designated paramour Blanche Ingram (an underutilised Imogen Poots), and sits ignored and shell-like in company that cares not a jot for her, dismissing governesses as “detestable incubi … hysterics … degenerates.” Jane leaves, pursued only by the man attracted to her precisely because she sits so far outside the whimsical world. Fukunaga is nicely aware of the importance of physical contact in a world where it’s verboten in all but the most profoundly private moments. The scene of Jane’s unexpected appearance causing Rochester and his horse to take a violent fall. The sight of the squealing animal and the bellowing man tethered in toppled, flurrying alarm encapsulates everything dark and ferocious about the male sexuality Jane knows nothing of and yet gravitates to with inevitable, physical compulsion: Fukunaga then extracts a deeply sensuous feel from a moment as simple as Jane leaning her face against Rochester’s leg much later when he’s mounted on his horse, and at the end when she takes his hand when he’s been blinded, both moments alive with the profundity of human touching human. Such sensuousness inhabits other scenes where it’s less expected, as when young Jane and Helen share a bed, providing both with emotional and physical warmth. There’s an admirable sense of awkward, fearsome determination when Jane bitterly remonstrates Mrs. Reed before being cast out of her life, and when Rochester leads Jane to their ill-fated wedding with a sense of a threat as yet undefined. Their subsequent confrontation by Rochester’s lunatic wife Bertha Mason (Valentina Cervi) elides her pathetic beauty and captures with subtle framings the humiliation and horror transfixing the undeserving Jane.
If anything finally limits this Jane Eyre’s success, it is that for all its casting and stylistic strength, it’s still an essentially conservative and modestly aimed adaptation, straining at the limits of the tasteful period film but also conceding to them. The screenplay by Moira Buffini, who wrote Tamara Drewe (2010), Stephen Frears’ amusing riff on Far from the Madding Crowd, is, in spite of the reorganising of the narrative, still anchored to studious novelistic progression and point of view, to the extent that it even avoids portraying the climactic conflagration that destroys Thornfield. There’s a devilish perfection in Bertha’s auto-da-fé destruction of the entire infrastructure of the English country order she’s been sitting within like an alien, spidery presence, which deserves filming. This omission robs the tale of its fiery apocalyptic grandeur, obvious even in the second person on the page, and so that the film feels curiously lacking in a climax: it’s not full-blooded in a way that the most bold and aggressively cinematic adaptations visibly fight to achieve in different fashions.
We tend to associate classic novels with the classic cinema styles that inflated them like fragments of myth, for example, David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946). Yet Fukunaga’s mise-en-scène offers a sinuous, deceptive kind of expressionism, with its twinning poles of the frantic, handheld, opening shot and a sense of vertiginous plunging into the unknown, and the equally woozy, but tonally opposite, scene in which his camera and edits spin and jump lithely as Rochester and Jane glance off each other in a teasing game of attraction and repulsion and attraction again in a garden that erupts to life as if spring is coming only in response to their unleashed passion. Jane Eyre the novel is hardly a work of interior monologue and deep psychological investigation, and yet it is closely tethered to Jane’s inner life and her accounting of her thought processes, explaining both her severe temptation to accept Rochester’s proposal that they live in sin and the power of her determination to resist when it’s deeply against the grain of her personal sense of integrity. This sort of stuff is hard to get across on screen and part of what tripped up earlier adaptations, which endlessly stalled waiting for the moment when Rochester and Jane kiss. But Fukunaga’s relative success relies on his careful camerawork and on Wasikowska’s and Fassbender’s capacity to depict warring internal impulses in gesture and speak in ways that convey several layers of meaning.
Fukunaga seems determined to tell this story as if it’s never been told before, with a clear-eyed sense of where to stress the narrative beats, which is uncommon in a lot of modern adaptations. Jane Eyre is a good yarn, and he’s not afraid to let it flow with a natural confidence that avoids the academic or drearily faithful adaptation of a TV miniseries. There’s something a little unpredictable about this Jane Eyre, even if the ending is never in doubt.