A film review by Craig J. Koban November 24, 2011


2011, PG-13, 121 mins.


Jane Eyre: Mia Wasikowska / Rochester: Michael Fassbender / St. John Rivers: Jamie Bell / Mrs. Reed: Sally Hawkins / Mr. Brocklehurst: Simon McBurney / Bertha: Valentina Cervi / Mrs. Fairfax: Judi Dench

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga / Written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte.

Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 literary titan JANE EYRE is among the greatest of all 19th Century literature.  It has been called one of the first great feminists texts, attributed largely to the fact that its story focuses ostensibly on a strong female character and her psychological state.  Aside from its noteworthy focus about a girl's maturation from childhood into adulthood and all of the wealth of experiences – good and bad - that she while on that journey, Bronte’s novel is also considered a forerunner in moody and ominous Gothic fiction.   

With that type of legacy, it’s no wonder that there have been so many – oh-so-many! – adaptations of the novel to the small and silver screen that I’ve simply lost track over the years.  There have been nearly 20 feature film appropriations of the text - perhaps most memorably encapsulated by the Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine iteration from the 40’s – as well numerous TV-movie examples, not to mention the umpteenth BBC productions that have been produced.  To say that I – and, most likely, many other viewers out there – are suffering from JANE EYRE fatigue perhaps would be an understatement. 

This, of course, begs the question: why should I commit another two hours of my life to yet another adaptation?  Any new venture would have to seriously bring something fresh and revitalizing to the proceedings to make the necessity of venturing out to see a new JANE EYRE appealing.  For the most part, I believe that director Cary Joji Fukunaga (SIN NOBRE) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (TAMARA DREWE) have accomplished this: They have the dubious task of taking an iconic work of literature that has been studied and scrutinized for over a hundred years and – with some noticeable alterations and tweaks – have made a new 21st Century JANE EYRE that should appease most of the devotees of the novel while ushering in new fans to the story.  Fukunaga is neither slavishly faithful to Bronte’s story nor is he committing an act of sacrilege with severely changing the text, which is why this new JANE EYRE feels more invigorating than most of the recent adaptations.  Most importantly, the film stays true to the book’s essential themes. 

The most noteworthy alteration to the text has been with how the film begins, progresses, and then ends.  Buffini has completely restructured the narrative so that the film’s story now begins about two-thirds of the way through the plot and then progresses through a series of flashbacks within other flashbacks to reveal the whole of the story.  If there is a criticism to levied against the film then it would be that some obsessive followers of Bronte’s source text may be a bit put off by the radical nature of just how disjointed the screenplay is with its focus.  Beyond that, people that are only vaguely familiar with the novel may be a bit confused with the fractured nature of the narrative’s momentum.  Nonetheless, this new approach to the original story is, I think, precisely what a new adaptation needs to successfully segregate itself from the pack. 

Again, the central focus is on the film’s heroine herself.  We still have a Jane Eyre that is a passionately independent minded woman from humble beginnings.  We still have a Jane Eyre that begins life as a meager and poor woman that evolves into someone more self-actualized as an adult.  We still have a Jane Eyre that, as she evolves into womanhood, speaks her mind and has to deal with all of the nagging complexities of living in her time and world.  Best of all, we still have a Jane Eyre that can willfully and confidently fend for herself: she is a woman that never appears to need rescuing, as so many other female character in fiction often require. 



This film’s Jane Eyre (played by Amelia Clarkson as a child and Mia Wasikowska as an adult) is still a tormented and abused persona: she was an orphan that was bullied, abused, and largely not tended after by adults above her, which has left her, as an adult, a woman that struggles with her place in the world.  She takes a job as a governess for the estate of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), who, by all outward accounts, is a deeply cantankerous man and that sees himself intellectually stymied by those around him.  Of course, when he comes across the path of the smart and shrewdly spoken Jane, something most definitely peaks Edward’s interests in her. 

The more time that Jane spends with the dashing and intriguing master of the house, the more both she and Edward become unspeakably drawn to one another.  Unfortunately, the past has a habit of creeping up on people in romantic fiction, as it does for Edward, which greatly impedes his courtship of Jane.  Also complicating matters is the presence of a clergyman named Rivers (Jamie Bell), who was instrumental in taking Jane in when she was at her lowest point in life, but nonetheless finds himself drawn to her as much as Edward.  Jane does find some solace, though, in the presence of the estate’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and as the plot propels to its conclusion and secrets are revealed, Jane is faced with even more challenging dilemmas that even she could not foresee. 

One element that really helps this JANE ERYE stand out are its handsome and sumptuous photography, its foreboding art direction, and its almost supernatural and spooky mood created throughout.  Fukunaga certainly wants to make this version darker, drearier, and a more oppressive looking picturesque tale that’s both beautiful and intimidating to look at.  His evocative and stylish sense of composition and tone is on stellar display here to help frame the emotional uncertainty of the underlining storyline.  JANE EYRE is an unqualified visual triumph through and through. 

However, the crowning achievement of the film is its two lead performances, which both carry a raw and discreetly carnal chemistry with one another: Mia Wasikowska is a natural Australian beauty that I did not find very strong in ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but I found her to be a limitlessly credible presence in THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT.  She has the thankless task of carrying the weight of JANE EYRE on her relatively inexperienced shoulders and she manages to successfully encompass all of the traits that we have come to love in the title role: her nimbly cunning way with words, her steadfast readiness to stand her ground and speak her mind, and her innate innocence and vulnerability as well.  What’s compelling here is how economical Wasikowska is with her performance, using the subtlest of body movements and facial expressions to speak volumes: she is masterfully restrained, as so many other young actors are not these days. 

Then there is Michael Fassbender,  the Irish star with the penetrating and piercing stare, the deeply internalized intensity, and an almost menacing charm that he has exuded time and time again to pitch perfect timbre in films as far ranging as HUNGER, FISH TANK, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and even this year’s X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.  He gives another tour de force performance as Edward that has to traverse between evoking his character’s oftentimes-intolerable irritability and emotional coldness alongside his late-stage susceptibility and compassion, especially during the film’s heart-rending conclusion.   Wasikowska certainly gives this new JANE EYRE its soul, but Fassbender’s capricious edge gives it a sustained pulse.  These two fine actors at the helm working marvelously off of one another - alongside the film’s darkly transfixing aesthetic grandeur and unique narrative handling - allows for this new JANE EYRE to be worth your investment, even if you think you’ve seen this story the same way countless times before.

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