New “Jane Eyre” Attempts to Capture Source Material

David Beal, Staff Writer

Charlotte Brontë wrote her classic British coming-of-age novel Jane Eyre in 1847, 164 years ago.  For 111 of those years, filmmakers and television producers have been throwing together countless screen interpretations, from silent films to faithful miniseries to zombie B-movies.  This latest Jane Eyre, directed by the young Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), falls on the faithful side, but I question how easy it is for any Eyre adaptation to be too faithful to the spirit of Bronte’s text.

Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland) begins her journey as a young, strong-willed orphan in the care of her conniving, vicious Aunt Reed (played by Sally Hawkins, a stunning actress who can freeze or warm your bones in an instant).  Jane is soon sent to Lowood, a religious boarding school run by a cruel and self-righteous headmaster.  There she spends her formative years, until she is hired as a governess at the massive Thornfield Mansion.

After arriving at Thornfield, she meets its handsome and mysterious owner, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender).  He is proud, defensive, and hiding a troubled past; he becomes smitten with Jane.

But strange things are beginning to happen around Thornfield.  Small fires, screams from upstairs, hushed violence.  A man from Jamaica appears for an unknown reason.  The plot keeps thickening, and I won’t say much more.  It’s a lush and wonderful story that one should discover on one’s own.

Out of these occurences the movie shapes quite a few scenes of frightening Gothic immediacy, but it attempts to obscure the story’s twist until the last possible moment.  Instead of a linear buildup, the story is told through flashbacks from Jane’s time spent with an anguished missionary (Jamie Bell).  While I’m not sure what motivated the flashbacks, the effect is mildly scattered and tedious.

The problem, though, may lie deeper.  How faithfully can a movie capture this book?  Brontë’s novel is about independence, subordinance, passion, religion, love – in other words, everything.  It brings up multi-layered questions: is Mr. Rochester taking advantage of his wealth and England’s social system?  Is he trying to break free?  Why isn’t Jane stonehearted herself if she was raised in such cold, cruel settings?

In movie form, Jane Eyre becomes an evocative fable that only hints at fleshing out these questions.  In novel form, we can spend more time thoroughly understanding the implications of the events.  Perhaps this is why there have been so many adaptations.  Everyone keeps struggling to find balance between the story’s outright suspenseful moments and its denser, more thoughtful ones, all while trying to do justice to Brontë’s elusive, hypnotic prose.

The new film has its advantages though.  (For one, it inspired me to explore and research the book.)  And when it’s not cloyingly backlit, it can be visually powerful; it portrays Jane’s insignificance in the face of the harsh natural world.

But its biggest asset is Fassbender, playing an intense and sexual Rochester.  In light of his recent performance in Fish Tank as a man who gets involved with a teenager, it’s hard not to see him as predatory, and this adds a whole new dimension to Jane Eyre.  He’s one of the best actors working today.

Jane Eyre
Opens Friday, March 18 in local theatres
Directed by Cary Fukunaga, written by Moira Buffini; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Imogen Poots; 115 min.