Cold and isolated is the best way to describe director Cary Fukunaga’s Gothic romance based on Charlotte Bronte’s classic 19th century novel; a novel I’ve unfortunately never read. But despite my unfamiliarity with Bronte’s prose, it’s quite easy to recognize when screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) borrows straight from the book, just as it’s easy to be impressed by those times when words aren’t necessary to express what the characters are feeling thanks to a pair of standout performances.
Fukunaga’s direction of Jane Eyre is the dark sister to Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. Both are literary staples featuring strong female protagonists at their core and both feature actresses worthy of acclaim for their characterizations of those lead characters.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) stars as Jane, and brings to her character such a perfect balance of strength and timidity you can’t help but fall under her spell. We first meet her fleeing across the countryside. Caught in a pounding rain storm she soon falls at the doorstep of the young pastor St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) who shows her a caring hand.
From here we get brief glimpses at her tumultuous childhood and her time at an all girls school as eight years quickly pass by. She begins work as a governess at Thornfield Hall where she cares for a young French girl and ultimately falls in love with her employer, Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
Fassbender and Wasikowska are perfect in the two lead roles. Their characters’ lonely and isolated souls feed into the initially despairing story line. As Jane and Edward grow closer so does the audience to the story. There’s a slow and steely build to this narrative and the words of Charlotte Bronte (or at least I am assuming they are words lifted directly from her novel) flow like silk as traded from Jane and Edward’s lips to our ears.
Wasikowska’s performance is strong and in control. As Jane she’s required to stand tall in the presence of the initially fearsome Rochester. However, only fearsome to the audience it would seem as Jane holds her own and then some. Wasikowska’s work here doesn’t come across like a performance, but rather a fully developed character you don’t have the slightest inkling to question, and Fassbender is with her every step of the way. There’s something in the eyes of both actors. Twice one asks the other, “What, nothing to say?” and just as each offers a well-timed reply, their faces at each moment say just as much.
My earlier comparison to Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice goes deeper than the fact we’re talking about two 19th Century novels. Like Wright, Fukunaga depends on composer Dario Marinelli for a quietly haunting score and even Judi Dench plays a part in both, here as Thornfield’s reliable housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax.
Where Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice diverge is in the tone and nature of the story. Jane Eyre plays like an artistic ghost story, complete with a jump scare of its own and things that go bump in the night. Of course, there is nothing spectral about this story and to go too far with the claim it’s a frightener would be disingenuous. Yet, there’s definitely a menacing tone to certain corners of this story and Fukunaga isn’t afraid of keeping those corners in view, even if they are only kept visible by the gentle lap of a candle’s flame.
The film, however, is not without its faults. Most notably, the early pacing of the story. Jane’s childhood years are told through flashback and while the story ultimately comes together quite well, the flashbacks seem ill-timed and, occasionally, abrupt. It’s obvious the attempt to condense Bronte’s story was the cause for this. Had the screenplay structure been developed any other way the story would have felt incredibly rushed. The fractured narrative allows for the stretching of the timeline without wasting actual running time. Yet, it still feels like a scene or two are missing around the time Jane leaves school to when she becomes governess at Thornfield.
I was also disappointed certain story lines, such as that of Jamie Bell’s St. John Rivers, are so quickly forgotten and never again touched upon. This, again, seems to be due to the flashbacks and the goal of keeping the running time as close to two house as possible, but it would have been nice to get a little closure with regard to certain situations.
Everything said, Jane Eyre remains a film worth seeing. It’s not as tightly bound as I would have liked, it has some bumps in the beginning and the end, but the middle-third is quite good and the performances are reason enough to give it a watch.