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Jane Eyre (2011)

On the plane back from Copenhagen I was finally able to watch the most recent Jane Eyre adaptation, which I was unable to see in theaters due to its frustratingly limited release.  Before I share my thoughts, a quick disclaimer: I have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre upwards of ten times.  As a result, my review will largely address issues of adaptation.

Of the three adaptations I have seen, this one is definitively superior.   The 1996 Zefirelli version was generally cold and suffered from a woefully miscast William Hurt as Rochester.  Charlotte Gainsbourg though an excellent actress, was slightly anemic in her portrayal of Jane and didn’t convey the necessary spirit.  Then there is Robert Stevenson’s 1943 version, starring Orson Welles and the far-too-pretty Joan Fontaine.  In an attempt to keep the film to 90 minutes, that version is over-abridged and paints the characters in broad strokes, making Jane a whimpering victim and Rochester a looming shadow creature.  Here’s the poster to give you a sense of it:

Suffice it to say I have been generally unsatisfied with adaptations of this book so near to my heart.  Cary Fukunaga’s version, with an excellent screenplay by Moira Buffini, made it all better.  The casting is simply brilliant – both Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are perfect in their roles.  Ms. Wasikowska, whom I loved in Alice in Wonderland – creates a Jane who is strong, fiery and self-righteous, but also contained and reserved.  One of the major problems with film adaptations of the novel is that Jane is an incredibly complex character, making it almost impossible to effectively convey all her levels onscreen.  Ms. Wasikowska does it.  The way she carries herself onscreen gives a sense of her quiet composure and her self-imposed reserve, letting us know that, though she is quiet, she is anything but meek.  When Rochester asks her to marry him, she erupts, and the fury and self-righteous indignation coming off of her body and face is palpable.  Wasikowska is a force of nature in this film, giving an incredibly moving performance without being the least bit showy.

Mr. Fassbender’s performance is also pitch-perfect.  Although he is a bit too handsome for the role, he makes up for it with his raw, emotional portrayal of a complicated character.  His Rochester is magnetic and yearning, allowing slight changes of facial expression to convey his reactions to Jane and her stubborn independence.  With his lean physique and chiseled jaw, he has the look of a starving wolf, desperate for the nourishment of Jane’s indomitable spirit.  The chemistry these two have shows that it is indeed possible to make a film with no sex more erotic than most R-rated fare.

The two leads are perfect, and the ensemble around them is equally excellent.  Judi Dench brings gravitas to Mrs. Fairfax, a character generally portrayed as good-hearted but simple.  Here, there is much more to her, and I love that it allows her to have more of a knowing sympathy with Jane.  One lovely scene, in which Ms. Buffini’s screenplay allows the book’s feminist leanings to show themselves explicitly, takes place between Mrs. Fairfax and Jane.  Our heroine looks longingly out at the horizon and says, “I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man…If I could behold all I imagine….”  The look on Dame Dench’s face in response makes it clear that she, too, has felt this longing, but she has sadly accepted her lot in this culture and time.  With this brief scene, Mrs. Fairfax is made a three-dimensional character, actually surpassing her portrayal in the novel.  Jamie Bell is also very good as the stern St. John Rivers, making the character both likeable and suitably off-putting.

My one major problem with this film is the handling of the childhood section.  Very little time is devoted to Jane’s childhood here, and the scenes that are included feel rushed and haphazardly put together.  The girl who plays her is irritating and ill-cast, though it’s hard to top young Anna Paquin in the 1996 version.  Jane’s friendship with Helen Burns is dispatched with in two short scenes, failing to convey the effect it has on Jane and her fierce sense of loyalty.  I almost wish they had left out the Lowood sequence altogether if they weren’t going to do it justice, as it just made the film feel choppy for the first twenty minutes.

Aside from the poorly put together childhood sequence, however, the film is simply beautiful.  Mr. Fukunaga’s filming conveys the harshness of the Northern England landscape and the isolation of Thornfield and its inhabitants.  He uses a great deal of handheld shots as well, giving the film more urgency and a the viewer a sense of proximity to the characters and their emotions.  Particular visual attention is paid to Jane’s sexual awakening, evident in the editing choices in particular.  After her second fireside conversation with Rochester, we see Jane looking at a sensual painting of a female nude in the hallway, contemplating it by candlelight.  Later, after she puts out the fire in his bedchamber, she returns to her room and starts to untie her robe as an enigmatic expression crosses her face.  With these visual cues, the filmmakers are able to convey Jane’s growing sexuality and attraction to Rochester without being anachronistically explicit.

In the end, my favorite thing about this film is that it allows the story to be unquestionably about Jane.  It sounds like a silly thing to say, but there are many ways to make the story of Jane Eyre less about Jane herself.  In this film, everything is from her point of view.  Ms. Buffini’s screenplay takes the majority of its dialogue directly from the novel.  To hear Ms. Wasikowska and Mr. Fassbender speak Bronte’s words gives us the perfect sense of how Rochester sees Jane but, more importantly, how she sees herself.  The last line of the film sums her up perfectly.  Rochester protests that he is dreaming and she simply says, “Awaken, then…”

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