a theatre, film & pop culture review
Jane and I first became acquainted in 1997. Similarly willful and independent spirits, we became fast, dear friends. In the years to follow, we were inseparable: I visited her often and with loving anticipation, and she never failed to comfort me with her empathy and strength.
There were times that she baffled me with her idiosyncrasies, and it felt as though we may have lost our mutual understanding of one another. Once, I remember, she bored me dreadfully with uncharacteristic melodrama. But whenever, with much sadness, I felt the distance widening between us, she would swiftly return and delight me with the beautiful comfort of her steadfast friendship. Jane and I, we were one. She was my second self.
Director Cary Fukunaga’s cinematic adaptation of the beloved Brontë masterpiece possessed an abundant promise. The trailer showcases far-reaching foggy moors; wind-swept, rain-soaked, corseted dresses; and dark, creeping shadows, promising a (literally) haunting, mysterious, and suspenseful melt-your-heart romance. Indeed, cinematographer Adriano Goldman creates a misty, water-colored palette, softening the typically austere Victorian setting to gorgeous effect. These moody, stunning views of English countryside are starkly contrasted by Fukunaga’s infatuation with the hand-held camera: we shakily follow Jane step by step as she walks Thornfield’s lush grounds in contemplation; we interrupt her private thoughts with intrusive close-up after close-up (if I didn’t know any better, I’d think Danny Cohen was out to ruin another film with his manipulative camera work). This Jane Eyre is visually stunning, with a dreamy, romantic quality that tenderly suits the “unearthly” Jane that bewitches Rochester with her impish charms.
If Fukunaga’s film is your first encounter with Jane, and you were swept away with the lushness of the tender visuals and the swoon-worthy simplicity of the plain-governess-who-impossibly-falls-in-love-with-her-master tale, I hope it has also moved you enough to read Brontë’s beautiful words firsthand. But if Brontë’s gorgeous, feminist prose forever shaped your literary consciousness; if your care-worn copy of the novel is lovingly dog-eared and underlined throughout; if you have, in fact, viewed Jane Eyre as a sympathetic soul since you were a young girl; this review, Dear Reader, is for you.
Having poured over Jane Eyre innumerable times, seen most all of the cinematic adaptations, collected the musical and opera recordings — I admittedly cannot separate the novel from the adaptation, the adaptation from the novel. This either makes me the most ideal of critics, or the most impossible to please, though I like to believe the former. That being said, Fukunaga’s adaptation is not revisionist, nor is it worshipful. From the initial screenshot, he and screenwriter Moira Buffini openly demonstrate this is not going to be the Franco Zeffirelli Jane Eyre (more about that later); instead, we are introduced to Jane’s love-meet with Edward Rochester via flashback from the point of her desertion of him: heartbroken and weary, she wanders the moors in search of shelter and salvation. While not entirely sustained throughout the film, this conceit brings an original angle to the tale, drawing immediate focus to what readers and filmgoers assuredly find the most essential and gripping part of Jane’s life: her tortured love for one Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester.
To this effect, Mia Wasikowska is perfection as the plain Jane who longs for a man she believes to be out of reach. But as the resolved, moralistic, impossibly strong Jane, Wasikowska falls a bit short; her eyes too easily spill over with tears when informed Rochester has left Thornfield for an indeterminate time, or when observing his easy flirtation with gold-digging socialite Blanche Ingram. Jane, on the outside, is largely stoic and unyielding; Wasikowska brings Jane’s vulnerability and youthful naiveté to the surface, where it rarely should be.
If Wasikowska’s Jane is properly plain, Michael Fassbender’s Rochester is inordinately attractive. When he arrogantly implores of Jane if she “thinks him handsome,” her answer to the negative rings falsely, though it shouldn’t. Rochester, if not entirely unattractive, should at the very least be a physically unappealing figure to Jane, who is attracted to his intellect, not his looks. More significantly, where Rochester should be more than twice Jane’s age, Fassbender barely registers as her elder, exuding a charming boyishness where Rochester should be brooding and gruff, even when employing his dark wit.
It’s the vital danger of Jane and Rochester’s relationship that is most missing here: this is, after all, Victorian England where class and station matter above all else, and their love is a strictly verboten one. Buffini’s slim script cuts the fat from the novel (my apologies, dear Charlotte, but all that God-talk is unnecessary), but in the process it also slims and quickens the development of the characters and their blossoming relationship. Here, it feels as though Jane bewitches Rochester’s horse one moment, and in the very next, they are exchanging fervent, forbidden kisses. When Rochester reveals his spiritual connection to Jane (“It is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame…”), it is one of the most gut-wrenchingly romantic passages of the novel; but here, it feels shallow. Fukunaga’s adaptation has not earned those words in all their weight and significance, and they come off as too-flowery poetry.
This could be too demanding of Mr. Fukunaga and his talented cast — grumbling over missing passages (why does no adaptation ever include the fascinating gypsy scene?), fussing over the tone and delivery of dialogue. Considering the film’s extremely warm critical reception, it should be heartening to know that so many more will now be introduced to this remarkable soul and that her romantic tale continues to move audiences.
Instead, however, I’ll close with these, my favorite adaptations of Jane Eyre:
If you are a Jane Eyre enthusiast, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 adaptation is the film for you. Doing what he does best, Zeffirelli takes pains to stay true to the text from moment to moment, to the point that Jane’s well-known appeals to her “Dear Reader” are utilized as expository voice overs as well to maintain some of Brontë’s most beautiful and thematically significant passages. Such authenticity could be dreadfully laborious, but not here: the always brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg remarkably encapsulates Jane’s moral and intellectual fortitude while shaping her resolve with hints of longing and despair. William Hurt’s Rochester is the moody, bear of a man whose shortness of temper cuts like a knife one moment and softens to a calculating jocularity the next. The disparity in the couple’s age and looks is spot-on, and their chemistry is alarmingly palpable. This is the dark, sweeping, gothic romance as you imagine it to be.
For those hopeless romantics out there, Paul Gordon and John Caird’s 2000 Broadway musical sets Brontë’s lyrical prose (much of it word-for-word) to swelling chords and dark undertones, heightening both the light and despair of its characters’ longings and revelations. This is, after all, what a musical does best: allows its characters to sing what they could never say, and Jane has a tremendous amount of inner monologues that are amazingly suited to the form. It also doesn’t hurt that Rochester is gloriously voiced by brooding baritone, James Barbour.