Jane Eyre

August 27, 2011
Mia Wasikowska stars in the film Jane Eyre, a Focus Features release directed by Cary Fukunaga.
Mia Wasikowska stars in the film Jane Eyre, a Focus Features release directed by Cary Fukunaga.

Jane Eyre is the definition of a classic: a tale that is discovered afresh by every new generation. As the story of an orphan girl who overcomes incredible hardships chiefly through her own strength of character, it invites a universal identification. To a certain extent we are each of us alone in the world, each of us at the mercy of fate and circumstance.

Jane, by her own famous assessment, is “poor, obscure, plain, and little,” though not “soulless and heartless.” The reader, or in this case, the viewer, leaps mentally to her defence. She is a being of rare integrity, a passionate spirit held stiffly in check by the shackles of convention. The natural justice that Jane demands is a chance at happiness. No philosopher could ask more nor less of life.

When Charlotte Bronte’s story first appeared in 1847, it was a startling assault on the hypocrisies of early Victorian England. Jane Eyre has been called the first major feminist novel in that it asserts women’s claim to a common humanity with men, despite all the social inequities of the era. Above all, it is a great love story, and this may be the secret of the book’s undying appeal. It is also the aspect that a young but very assured American director, Cary Fukanaga, has chosen to to emphasise in this new film version.

The first recorded movie of Jane Eyre was made in 1910. Since then there has been a never-ending stream of adaptations, including Robert Stevenson’s melodrama of 1943, with Joan Fontaine as Jane; Orson Welles as Rochester, and a screenplay by Aldous Huxley. From what I’ve seen, Fukanaga’s Jane Eyre stands up strongly against its predecessors.

Jane’s love for Rochester is an impossible one, kept at bay by considerations of class, poverty and custom. But Rochester, one of the most complex and mercurial figures in English literature, is passionate enough to cast aside every obstacle – with one fatal exception. He is a combustible mixture of courage and cowardice, a freethinker tortured by his conscience. Ultimately he loses sight of the difference between right and wrong, and this is a disability Jane cannot condone.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way we watch Jane progressively taking hold of each stage of her life, making something concrete from the most wretched beginnings. This steady build-up, that draws us ever closer to the character, is not possible in a feature-length movie. In the numerous film versions of Jane Eyre, writers and directors have been forced to leave out hunks of the plot, carefully choosing the climactic moments they wish to preserve.

With the current film, writer, Moira Buffini, has managed to retain more than most of her predecessors did, narrating the events of Jane’s life by means of lengthy flashbacks. This is not as stagey as it sounds, and works surprisingly well. The problem is that a large amount of story, and a volcanic surge of emotion, has had to be compressed into a brief time span.

Anybody who says this film is slow has never read the novel, because it seemed to me that events were unfolding at breakneck speed. The cat and mouse game of Rochester’s courtship of Jane is transmuted into a whirlwind romance. If it still exerts a spell on the viewer, this is because Buffini occasionally slackens the pace to include some of the most memorable pieces of dialogue from the book. The success of these scenes owes much to the ability of the actors, chiefly Mia Wasikowska as Jane, and Michael Fassbender as Rochester.

Who would have thought a girl from Canberra would be such a natural fit in this role? In the book, Jane keeps telling us that she is not pretty, but we always imagine this is only a function of her modesty and lack of self-confidence. Wasikowska captures this elusive aspect of Jane: she is just the right age, and manages to be strong but sensitive, attractive although not outstandingly beautiful. Think what a travesty it would have been if a glamorous creature like Scarlett Johansson were cast in this part.

Bronte also portrays Rochester as ungainly, even ugly, although his vitality renders him handsome in Jane’s eyes. Michael Fassbender captures that air of wildness, the tenseness and changeability that makes Rochester such an enigma. When he stares at Jane with his pale blue eyes, it is as though his X-Ray vision is peering right through her corsets. The sexual undercurrents seethe and churn, but there is nothing to endanger the film’s M rating.

Much has been written about the ‘Gothic’ elements in this production, but despite a couple of cheap thrills, the mystery of the mad woman in the attic is passed over with surprising haste. The atmosphere may be gloomy, the landscape wild and barren, but true Gothic requires a sense of horror, and this is absent from Fukanaga’s film. If the viewer shivers it will not be from fear, but from registering a tremulous distance between two people that threatens to snap shut with incalculable force.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 27, 2011

UK/USA. Rated M, 120 minutes.

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