Now, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve never actually read Jane Eyre. Fortunately, Cary Fukunaga‘s take on Charlotte Bronte’s timeless classic seems as if it were made expressly for me and everyone else who has yet to read the book. Presented as a mystery of sorts, opening with Jane making a hasty escape across the moors, you’re immediately asking yourself, “What is she running from? What has happened?” And as this lone, tragic figure stumbles through the almost impenetrable mist with tears streaming down her face, over the rocky terrain, out from the looming shadow of Gothic architecture, toward the ominous storm clouds forming on the horizon ahead of her, you can already see that there is no disconnect between the film you are watching and the film advertised in the trailer. It’s always a pleasure to have your faith rewarded.
Fukunaga’s gloriously Gothic vision of Jane Eyre is breathtaking. With its mysteriously fragmented storyline, cutting back and forth through time, and its eerily ethereal tone, playing much like a ghost story, the film transcends the typical costume drama, becoming a richer and a bit more intriguing baroque piece.
Presented as a triptych, cutting between Jane’s life with the Rivers (whose doorstep she found her way to after her beleaguered flight across the moors), her bleak childhood–as an orphan staying with her abusive aunt & cousins at Gateshead and her subsequent exile at the equally inhospitable Lowood School for Girls–and her time as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets the vexing Mr. Rochester. Fukunaga’s film is endlessly engrossing.
Of course, the major factor drawing you in to the film is Mia Wasikowska‘s performance as Jane. There was always something intriguing about Wasikowska’s acting (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right), but here, with material that is a bit more formidable, she really shines. She delivers a wonderfully layered performance with such grace and subtlety, imparting so much emotion with only a glance or a furrow of her brow. Her Jane is more than some unfortunate waif, beset by a beguiling world of men. She is strong-willed, purposeful, unafraid to speak her mind. Independent. And when she says, “I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man,” it is more a declaration of who she is. Multi-faceted and truly engaging, Wasikowska’s Jane is marvel to watch. Fukunaga keeps the story centered on Jane. It is her story, and Wasikowska owns it.
Michael Fassbender plays an equally complex Mr. Rochester. Deftly maintaining the delicate balance between brooding menace and tender longing. Rochester comes off as truly conflicted, desperately trying to keep his dark secret, but unable to completely subdue the glimmers of his obvious fondness for Jane. Fassbender’s charm is unencumbered by Rochester’s fierce secrecy, rounding out the character so that he’s so much more than a mere menace. Each note of his performance rings true, whether it be wry and sardonic–as when interviewing Jane after his arrival–or apologetically sincere, as when he finally reveals his dark secret.
It should come as no surprise that Judi Dench is marvelous. She’s Judi Dench. She adds a bit of levity to the proceedings, playing the surprisingly spry housekeeper at Thornfield Hall, Mrs. Fairfax. She is the very heart of Thornfield Hall.
For me, the surprise performance was from Sally Hawkins. Having first seen her as the effervescent and infectiously optimistic Poppy, in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, it was a shock to see her as Jane’s stern aunt, the stony Mrs. Reed. Her performance so perfectly encapsulates Reed’s icy ineffectualness that even her physical appearance seems that of a stone-cold alabaster statue.
Amelia Clarkson’s performance as the young Jane was every bit as good as Wasikowska’s elder Jane. Both actresses capable of conveying so much with a mere look, they do appear to truly be one in the same.
However, the beauty of this film rests on more than just the fine performances and Fukunaga’s direction. Adriano Goldman‘s cinematography is truly stunning. The use of natural light is amazing, and particularly effective at creating the Gothic look Fukunaga is aiming for. It’s a remarkably dark picture, with long hallways like inky black chasms. The darkness of Thornfield Hall consumes the light put off by what few candles there are. Even in daylight, there’s a feeling of encroaching darkness inside the Hall.
And outside, on the moors, the English countryside seems perpetually enveloped in fog when Jane first arrives at Thornfield Hall. Goldman presents such grand vistas shrouded in clouds. He weaves a wonderful cinematic tapestry with a seemingly endless supply of various shades of gray.
Couple Goldman’s visuals with Dario Marianelli’s beautiful, sweeping score and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre becomes quite an experience. Epic in scope, but through Fukunaga’s direction and the actor’s performances firmly grounded in reality. The film is simultaneously grandiloquent and intimate. Whether you’ve never read Jane Eyre or not, I think you’re in for a treat. I’m sure the story has been condensed for time, and the ending did feel a bit abrupt, but I thoroughly enjoyed Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre.