The books written by the Bronte sisters have, for the most part, been ignored by Hollywood in the past; though there have been multiple adaptations over the years these were not made as movies but rather as cliff notes for illiterate High School students or time fillers for the elderly audience of the BBC. This is strange because the stories that they contain are not as closely akin to those of Dickens or Wharton – whose works have, for the most part, existed on a similar sphere of execution – as they are Austen, a veritable crowd-pleaser and something of a box-office draw between those two aforementioned audiences. So it is something of a relief to see the most prominent, and arguably the most marketable, of their tales adapted in a manner more befitting of their standing in the canon.
The story of Jane Eyre is a rather simple one and if you have seen a costume drama or two in the past than you will likely have seen all of its beats played out before, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that to my mind, especially when they are as evocative, enchanting, emotional, etc. as they are here. As you’ve probably already pieced together the film follows the titular Miss.Eyre who is, on the surface, something of a plain Jane – I’m not sure whether the phrase was coined because of her or because of the rhyme, but I’d like to believe that the former is true – but who nevertheless manages to get herself involved in a number of portentous social adventures.
Jane isn’t a very glamorous role – quite literally in fact thanks to Jane’s constant wardrobe and demure persona – and yet she is still very much a difficult one to portray outside the inclusive perspective of the original novel but Mia Wachiowska manages to convey her character quite completely through some wonderful expression work; there is no need for any kind of narration or other forced exposition of emotions, her face tells the story clear enough in its subtle tics and ques.
No matter how well she works though there is still an alienation inherent in the character that does work to dampen the emotional impact of a lot of the films moments. This is as much Bronte’s doing as anyone’s as it is a vital part of her make-up, but the added distance of a film exacerbates this element disproportionately to my mind; and so I can’t really see many people coming away from this movie loving Jane as they might the lead in an Austen.
In fact all of the films characters are a little too loosely sketched; we see them but we can never understand them. Thankfully though the rest of the cast are as solid in their performances as Mia and so you can enjoy them in the moment nevertheless. Fassbender is, as usual, the standout and he relishes the role of the haunted heartthrob Mr.Rochester as if he were born for it; in many ways he was, so well suited are his particular talents to the role: his air and acting style to the former adjective and his looks to the latter. Thankfully then the film savors his sections, in fact it also seems to savour his gender a little more than one would expect; if this is a costume drama than it is the men who get all the interesting outfits – It’s an ode to male beauty that also happens to feature an actual ode to male beauty.
Whatever flaws this films characters may have there is still so much to be gotten from simply watching them interact and this is because the dialogue is so winning: it’s eloquent, poetic and yet still entirely legible to the untrained ear. The scenes of the two leads, Jane and Rochester, chatting by the fireside are glorious; watching their power struggles as they both struggle with their strictly shackled emotions is something that never grows old. There is also something brilliant about the use of silence and sound throughout this adaptation; the manor is made so ominous through the use of distant creaks and muffled blows. I would argue that the film actually manages to convey the ominous, almost supernatural gothic atmosphere of the story better than the book can; though the constant reference to actual supernatural creatures – vampires, dire wolves, god, ghosts, etc. – did get a little tired towards the end.
The film also looks just as good as it sounds; the scenery surrounding the manor – the moors and the mountains – is already stunning enough but the way it has been shot here makes it seem quite magical. So all the great moments that you read in the book can be either seen or heard here on a similar level. Unfortunately though the direction is not entirely flawless as the structure Fukanaga has chosen to impose on the story is problematic; I cannot recall the originals linearity exactly but there is far too much jumping around in this version of the initial act for me; I got lost looking at it this way, even though the road was entirely familiar to me. The man is known for making non-linear films though and thus he perhaps felt that a simple adaptation was below him; personally I think that given the time constrictions it is probably hard enough to tell this story straight.
For the most part though Cary has done a great job here, despite perhaps trying to bite off more than he could chew. Whether or not he has created something that will be remembered for hundreds of years, or read and re-read perennially, something that can stand and fire on it’s own is as unclear as it is unlikely; however his film does do justice to its source material and given that his source material is canon material, that is high praise indeed.