'Jane Eyre': Latest Adaptation A Moody Success
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
The traditional period piece -- especially when it's an adaptation of a classic novel -- has developed a vocabulary and grammar all of its own. Windswept moors and stately mansions, tight-cinched corsets and tightly-held feelings, longing looks and longer sideburns. What makes director Cary Fukunaga's new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" -- first published in 1847 -- worthy of note beyond all those traditions and trappings is the degree of effort and emotion Fukunaga's direction brings to the film. There's no voice-over, no narration, and long stretches of the film involve nothing more -- and, conversely, nothing less -- than the play of emotions across Mia Wasikowska's face in the lead role. Fukunaga's superbly executed direction and careful staging speak very rarely, and yet say so much.
Jane (Wasikowska) begins the film running from a cold stone doorway to the wet, barren landscape of rural 19th-century England, lashed by storms and wracked by sorrow. In time, we understand what Jane was running from -- an unhappy childhood among distant (in every sense of the word) relatives, work as a governess for the ward of Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), whose haughty demeanor hides secrets and passions. Jane is taken in by clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot no more) and his sisters; the question is whether her new home is more escape than refuge.
Adapted by Moira Buffini (who did similar adaptation work on "Tamara Drewe," itself a modernization of Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd,"), "Jane Eyre" does a startlingly good job of paring Brontë's 500-page novel into a two-hour film. Buffini does not hyper-accelerate the plot and the dialogue, but, rather, pares them down to the bare bones of what matters. The essential heart of the story -- which is to say, the essential heart of Jane herself, a woman hungering for self-determination and self-assertion well over a century before the very idea of feminism -- is here, beating through every scene.
And Fukunaga is not afraid of the more Gothic and grim aspects of the material as well. Other film makers might be tempted to lighten and brighten Brontë's novel; instead, Fukunaga focuses on turning the moods and moments other film makers might gloss over with sound-effects creaks and flickering lights into real sources of tension and feeling. Jane lives in a demon-haunted world -- full of superstition and madness -- and the real nature of it is revealed slowly to both us and her.
This is not to say that Fukunaga doesn't have a capacity for some droll levity. Dame Judi Dench, as fellow servant Ms. Fairfax, manages to combine sympathy and sarcasm in several moments. And Fukunaga isn't afraid to lightly jab at the clichés and pretensions of the sub-genre as well; at one point, Rochester's intended asks Jane for her " ... tale of woe -- all governesses have a tale of woe." And the swoony romanticism in the material doesn't get short shrift, either. When Rochester and Jane finally speak of their affections, it's like a dam bursting after months of rain; at the same time, we also get to see the devastation that unleashed flood causes.
Fukunaga is aided and abetted by a wisely-chosen cast. Bell's mix of concern and control play out admirably as his clergyman seeks to help Jane more than she may want. Dench is in fine form, as ever. Fassbender manages to keep both Jane and us on our toes as Rochester -- his eyes are shark-black dead on some occasions as he speaks pleasantries he does not feel, but also warm and alive with charm as he jests and cajoles.
In the lead role, and superb, Wasikowska -- liberated from the sterile CGI-void of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" -- fills the film with energy and empathy. Jane may be trapped in a world that denies her, but she tests its bars and locks with fierce spirit and true conviction. There are long moments here when Wasikowska has nothing but the play of light and emotion across her face, and it is a tribute to her skill that we feel every moment without Jane having to utter a sound.
It would be remiss to not credit the production team -- cinematographer Adriano Goldman, production designer Will Hughes-Jones and costume designer Michael O'Connor first and foremost -- but at the same time, writer Buffini and director Fukunaga have freed "Jane Eyre" from the sights, rooms and clothing other filmmakers would lean on as a crutch. Anyone with a few candles, access to a heritage site and a few rental petticoats can make a film of a classic English novel; what Fukunaga and his cast and crew have done is made a film to remind us why, and how, that novel became a classic.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.