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Charlotte Brontë’s seminal literary work, Jane Eyre, has been adapted countless times and prepared in a myriad of ways from the 1943 Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles version that was whittled to an hour and a half to the 1983 BBC mini-series with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton that spans five-plus hours. That certainly begs the question of why anyone, from writer Moira Buffini to director Cary Fukunaga to Dame Judi Dench, would feel inspired to recreate this coming-of-age story about love and accepting its blemishes.
Fukunaga’s (Sin Nombre) take, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray today, doesn’t exactly provide an amazing revelation or epiphanic justification for bringing “Jane” back to life, but it does prove that no classic can be so overdone that it becomes untouchable; even the most tried and dated of love stories can find new life. Fukanaga has given Jane Eyre a photorealistic makeover devoid of frills and fiercely au naturel, but no less gripping than the story’s “livelier” retellings.
Fictional period dramas often feel overtly pristine and glazed over to the point of fairytale, but in watching this film, you get the sense that this is quite possibly how the story would have looked and felt if it had been true. All the way down to accents, this rendition has clearly labored over historical authenticity and it shows in the finished product.
Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) continues to choose spot-on independent films despite leading the billion-dollar Alice in Wonderland of 2010 and it continues to pay off. She’s clearly adept at embodying literary characters, or at least at recreating them within herself rather than worrying about trying to become the way the majority perceives them. Her modest looks suit Jane perfectly and she can play both the fragile girl who has been so often wronged by those who were supposed to care for her and the somewhat self-assured young woman who so plainly understands right from wrong.
Buffini (Tamara Drewe) tells this story in an un-narrated flashback. The film opens with Jane dashing away from the spectre of the Thornfield estate and stumbling through the beautifully captured but cold and desolate English countryside in a state of total anguish. She arrives at the Rivers’ place where they enquire as to her identity. As the voice of Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) beckons her, she cannot block out the memories of her journey. The film then catches up to that point in real time and continues on to the end.
Other than a terrific performance from Amelia Clarkson as young Jane, the early chapters involving Lowood School seem to be of less significance in this version other than the very clear point to establish Mr. Brocklehurst as an insensitive headmaster and clearly spell out Jane’s early traumas that have affected her perspective. The love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester and the way it affects Jane takes supreme precedence in this film and with a two-hour run time, rightfully so. Nevertheless, the short beginnings prevent the film from showing the whole scope of Jane’s troubled life.
Fassbender and Wasikowska work terrifically and manage to communicate the class and age discrepancy that made Jane Eyre a juicy read back in the 19th Century. Fassbender does seem to let Rochester’s guard down quicker than expected, but I enjoyed his choice to be less standoffish and more brooding; he determines his secret to be more a responsibility of an unfortunate nature than a loathsome burden. His love for Jane then feels more sincere.
An actress as magnetizing as Judi Dench choosing to play the caretaker Mrs. Fairfax sums up the humble attitude of this version. She uses her gravitas to the effect of being the film’s lone comic relief and complements the scenes rather than stealing them from Wasikowska, who is 55 years her junior.
The film itself aims for subtlety and chooses not to amp up the shock value of the story’s most pivotal scenes. There’s some manufactured suspense, but it’s mostly natural. It ends up being the most commendable aspect of Fukunaga’s vision, but maybe the most hampering as well. He creates exceptional tone and mood with the help of his wonderful cast and this seizes our interest, but his “Jane” never takes a chance with any emotional punches. A superbly crafted film, just not an overly resonant one.
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Written by Moira Buffini, Charlotte Brontë (novel)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell