(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: When orphaned governess Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) arrives at imposing Thornfield Hall, she’s intrigued by her brooding wealthy employer, Rochester (Michael Fassbender). His dark moods and the strange occurrences in the house lead her to discover a terrible secret he had hoped to hide from her forever.
– from DVD production notes
(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
Jane Eyre is a book that lives in the minds of many. It means a lot to women I’ve met over the years. In some cases it has had a profound effect on them, not only artistically, but emotionally.
This is what led me to reading the book in 2009. I respected the story and understood its importance, so I was curious when I heard about Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation was coming out a few years later. Eyre had already been adapted for the screen sixteen times, so why again?
I’d already seen a few adaptations of Eyre, but what struck me about Fukunaga’s version was how it captured the tone of the book. I felt the same watching it as I had while reading Charlotte Brontë’s writing, which was an experience I’d never had before. I would say that this version of Eyre may be the most emotionally true book-to-film adaptation I’ve ever seen.
However, I’m sure many fans would beg to differ. (And I respect that, 100%.)
Most of this story’s longevity and strength lies in its heroine. Eyre is a portrait of a young girl experiencing isolation and uncertainty, but what every other adaptation has missed is the angst and intensity of her mind. Somehow Mia Wasikowska was able to capture that balance, as well as her younger counterpart, fiercely acted by Amelia Clarkson.
This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of aloneness and vulnerability. Fukunaga captures them well and they are beautiful to look at, perhaps some of the best I had seen since Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) or Samantha Morton’s The Unloved (2009).
Then of course there’s the love story that anchors the plot. Jane Eyre falls for her employer, Mr. Rochester, which is when the film veers into a strange hybrid of ghost story and romance. To say the least the plot is shaken up when he arrives, and the scene where Eyre, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and her pupil, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore) have their breakfast interrupted by rifle blasts makes me laugh every time.
In this case Rochester is played by Michael Fassbender. When I saw it I knew him so peripherally I would refer to him as “the only guy I didn’t recognize in Inglourious Basterds.” To be honest, it was like I had no goddamn idea he was in this movie. I was, however, incredibly aware of his character.
My answer: “Oh my God, plenty. You have no fucking idea.”
In my opinion Rochester is a total bastard. He broods, lies, berates his servants and plays mind games with Jane in order to suss out her feelings, which is behavior I absolutely hate. Then there’s the whole “I have no wife” bit that makes me want to punch him in the face. It leads to one of the most disastrous wedding scenes in literary history.
But Jane loves him. It’s unquestionable and perhaps unable to be understood by anyone besides the two of them (seriously, who cares what I think?). What makes her admirable is that she doesn’t allow her love to compromise herself. She is fortunate to make her own way in the world and return to Rochester on her own terms.
As a whole this film belongs to Wasikowska. She plays Jane with subtlety and restraint, then gives in to the character’s feelings with unexpected force. Before the film was released a clip of her confronting Rochester was posted online. I was so impressed by her performance it convinced me to see it. I was like, “Well, she’s definitely not sleepwalking through this thing.”
Upon further viewings I’ve come to appreciate the other performances as well. I was particularly struck by Dench’s Fairfax, who is mainly an expository character and in a rather thankless role. In the end she became one of my favorite characters in the film, caring and often misunderstood. There’s something in Dench’s interpretation that makes her likeable and sincere.
I also have to note that in spite of its seriousness, I do find parts of Eyre really funny. It could be Rochester’s straw hat, Jaime Bell yelling, “Why do you speak to the air?” or listening to Fukunaga’s audio commentary (near the end he describes the disfigured Rochester as a hipster from Williamsburg, hanging out in coffee shops and making electronic music). I probably shouldn’t be laughing, but I do.
Eyre is also the only costume drama that has an ending I would describe as “perfect.” Its genre is known for ending with weddings drenched in sunlight or people frolicking in front of mansions. I really don’t like that, mostly because it’s been done to death and it never rings true. In this case Fukunaga chooses to end the story at just the right moment: the poignant beginning of something.
Overall, I would recommend this to anyone when it comes to “best adaptations.” It’s also interesting to watch the two leads tackle characters that are in danger of being tapped out. When I first saw the film I wrote somewhere that watching them was like hearing two finely-tuned instruments playing off of one another.