by Sam Juliano
Since the advent of the silent era there have been no less than 26 films and television properties based on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This would surely place the Victorian Age gothic melodrama among the most filmed stories of all time, standing in the overall pantheon with the likes of Bram Stoker’s parasitic count and two novels by Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Undoubtably the most famous adaptation was a brooding black and white version from 1944 directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane. With cinematographer George Barnes, composer Bernard Herrmann and writer John Housman making major contributions it is no wonder the film is still generally regarded as the finest Jane Eyre on record. A few years earlier in 1942, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur used prominent elements from the story for the second of their low-budget horror films at RKO, the elegant and poetic I Walked With A Zombie, set in the West Indies. Yet there always seems to be a filmmaker or screenwriter that falls smitten to this sensual story, and there is certainly no dearth of ardent movie goers in the willingness to sit through yet another interpretation.
The key to a first-rate Jane Eyre is the casting. This is what primarily distinguished the Stevenson version, and some others, most notably an exceptional four-hour ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ adaptation released in 2006, which starred Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens in wholly exceptional turns. In Cary Fukunara’s new British version of the novel, Wilson is seriously challenged as the defining Jane by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who previously played Alice in Wonderland for Tim Burton and appeared as the daughter in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Wasikowska beautifully negotiates the character’s vulnerability as well as her feral instincts in a spirited performance as the heroine unwilling to compromise her moral code. Her subtle handling of some intimacy issues adds to the depth of her portrayal. Michael Fassbender, who was wholly impressive in both Hunger and Fish Tank doesn’t attempt to emulate Welles’ outsized screen presence, instead settling to imbue the cynicism of Rochester, a man who is dangerous yet loving. Together, they are extraordinary in building romantic tension, which eventually rewards those with emotional investment.
The film spends only some perfunctory time on Jane’s early period, when she is orphaned at an early age, a time when she is coerced to live with her aunt Mrs. Reed, a spiteful woman with intense disdain for her niece. Eventually Mrs. Reed callously ships Jane off to boarding school, a place where conditions are bleak and the harsh and mean-spirited schoolmasters dole out severe pusnishments. Fukanaga opts to use flashbacks to chronicle Jane’s childhood, and then moves on to her discharge and subsequent appointment as a schoolteacher in a wealthy home in rural environs. It is here of course, in the employment of Mr. Rochester that Jane finally finds a pleasant and prosperous abode. Rochester is immediately taken with Jane’s shy nature, sharp wit and frankness, and the two inexorably develop a close friendship. Much like the relationship forged in sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, (a novel where the the woman, Catherine Earnshaw held sway as the affluent component, while ‘Heathcliff’ was a dark-skinned adopted brother who worked as a stable boy) Jane struggles with her feelings for Rochester because of their differences in social standing. She is led to believe by society’s unwritten rules that she isn’t worthy of Rochester’s affections, and she later comes to suspect that he harbors secrets he is keeping from her. Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini are cognizant that Bronte implied that romantic love always comes with a price and happy endings must be earned. Jane uncovers secrets in Thornfield Hall and exposes herself to embarassment and derision because of her deep love for Rochester; in return his own hypocricy and nefarious maneuverings are unveiled in the name of mutual affection, and the secret in the attic is one of literature’s most potent contexts.
The perfect screen Jane Eyre should include lush and atmospheric music, a sumptuous set design and ravishing cinematography and in all three departments Fukunaga’s version is a big winner. Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his rapturous work in Joe Wright’s Atonement initially captures Jane’s nervousness and uncertainty in strains of somber classicism, before seguing into rapturous romanticism. Marianelli fully supports the temperament of the narrative throughout with what is still a magnificent stand alone work that will surely contend for score of the year honors. Adriano Goldman’s weather sensitive cinematography is utterly gorgeous, though one couldn’t even imagine an adaptation of this work not coming armed with at least pictorial beauty, which in this film extends to the darker interior scenes. Both the set-designer Will-Hughes Jones and costume designer Michael O’Connor have made exceptional contributions in giving this Jane Eyre an exquisite look that brings the story to envisioned realization even with the admission that the two leads are too handsome.
If Anglophiles needed yet another validation to check out this version, there’s the cherished presence of Judi Dench as the chatty housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax who imparts some questionable advice. And then there’s the perky Sally Hawkins who is most convincing as a nasty aunt as is Imogeen Poots as a rich and pretty girl who provides a real threat to Jane.
But the overriding accomplishment in this Jane Eyre for all the greatness in performance and craftsmanship is the raw and often viserval vision of Ms. Fukunaga, who brings a romantic intensity and cinematic urgency to the proceedings which is unlike the general stateliness of prior versions. This is truly the first time we have seen the force of cinema applied to one of the most literary of stories, whatever it’s atmospherics may yield. It’s the first time a filmmaker has left the box, if you will.
Final Rating: **** 1/2 (of five)
Note: I saw ‘Jane Eyre’ at the Sony Theatre multiplex near Lincoln Center last Sunday (March 20) with my 9 year-old son Jeremy who lasted about 30 minutes before falling off.