Another Brontë adaptation I hear you wail? Bonnets and unrequited love and corsets and rolling moors. Period dramas have garnered a reputation for tedium, and often quite rightfully so. While the story may be well known, and regarded as timeless, there is something fresh and vigorous about this latest adaptation. It is a credit to the filmmakers that they have used the specific nature of the medium to bring Jane Eyre’s story to the screen again so successfully.
The film begins with our heroine Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing from some unknown terror through the oppressive gloom of the moors with the camera acting as our narrator in the first person – it stumbles as Jane trips and rises as she stands. This expressive use of cinematic technique to get around the inherent problems of adapting a novel written in the first person is impressive. Rather than rely on a crude voiceover, or being overly dependent on dialogue, the film relays the emotional core of the film through the language of cinema.
Moira Buffini’s script plays around with the novel’s narrative in deciding to begin with Jane’s descent into the home of the Rivers family, while we are filled in to her abuse-filled childhood – first at the home of a cruel aunt, and latterly at a disciplined boarding school – through flashback. These give us our insight into Jane’s “tale of woe”, as it will be referred to by Rochester. Her tough and challenging upbringing instil her with a strong and stoic determination to chisel out a life for herself.
No matter how iron-willed young Jane’s spirit is, however, there is a constant sense of foreboding and of a quiet, creeping gloom from which there is little chance of escape. This only deepens as Jane, upon leaving school, arrives at Thornfield Hall to act as Governess in the cavernous home of Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Upon arrival she is greeted by kindly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Judi Dench) who, perhaps, welcomes her too earnestly, eager as she is for company in the lonely, creepy mansion as Rochester is more often than not away from Thornfield.
In true Gothic fashion, Thornfield Hall’s isolation and unoccupied rooms make things go bump in the night. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman seems to have worked closely with Fukunaga to help visualise the subtle dread of Brontë’s description of Thornfield. Characters seem to walk around in eternal darkness, with isolated pockets of light from their lanterns or fireplaces flickering across the screen ominously.
As Jane is beginning to settle into the quiet life of the Governess, Rochester arrives and is soon won over by Jane’s forthright manner and fearless wit. Their burgeoning romance, however, is underpinned by some dark unspoken desire which rests at the very heart of the novel and film. Rochester is a brooding and malevolent man, seemingly dangerous uninhibited. Jane is pure and often referred to as “plain”. One conversation in particular in which both dance around the subject of their feelings for the other, makes clear the nature of Rochester’s lust for Jane, as he declares he wants to be replenished by her purity.
Both Fassbender and Wasikowska are expertly cast in these roles. If we forgive Fassbender for Jonah Hex, he is no more becoming one of the most engaging screen presences working today, but already is. The intensity he brings to the picture, and the way he flips between a piercing stare and a disarming smile remind us of De Niro in his pomp. Wasikowska was thrown from relative obscurity to worldwide exposure with her role in Tim Burton’s sadly flawed vision of Alice in Wonderland, but performs wonderfully as Jane. A performance of great poise and maturity, in which often her silent gaze falls on others in a calm certainty of her own destiny, and finding curiosity in the behaviour of others.
While their love for one and other develops to the point of marriage, Rochester and Thornfield harbour disturbing secrets which cannot for ever remain uncovered. It is at the revelation of Rochester’s dark past that the film seems to falter slightly. Perhaps it is an inevitable conclusion of the necessary stripping down of a novel of 400 or so pages into a two hour film. The film’s ending seems to arrive as an anti-climax, and I wonder whether the script might have been better served by spending more time at Thornfield and with Rochester, rather than with the ancillary strands which, while serving to strengthen Jane’s character, do not necessarily build up to the pay-off sought after in the conclusion of events at the mansion.
Cary Fukunaga is quickly becoming one of the most interesting and exciting young directors from across the pond. His debút feature Sin Nombre was a cracking film which won awards at the Edinburgh and Sundance film festivals. Therefore a move to directing English heritage literature is a bold step to take, but one which has paid off. Working again with cinematographer Goldman, the two provide a visually sumptuous treat and a confident new vision of Jane Eyre for the 21st century.
The Blu-ray release really does do justice to the hard work put into the look and feel of a period drama such as this. So much detail has went into the production design and the cinematography that it deserves to be seen in the highest clarity possible. The sweeping landscape shots of the mansion and surrounding moors are sharply delivered, and for the most part the much darker interiors hold up well. The audio stands up fine, although at times it is certainly a bit of a challenge to catch Fassbender’s dialogue.
Bit disappointing, if truth be told. Aside from the standard deleted scenes and director’s commentary, there are 3 extremely short features which give a slender glimpse into the score, lighting and general production of the film. The deleted scenes are worth a star on their own, however, as they certainly help to fill in some of the blanks felt in the film itself. One in particular ghostly scene in which Jane has a vision of her wedding veil being torn in a dream (or is it…?) is baffling by its exclusion.
Jane Eyre is released on Blu-ray from today.