Review: Cary Fukunaga's 'Jane Eyre' is a Near-Scary Romantic Thriller
by Cate Hahneman
March 30, 2011
I want to preface this review with the fact that I have never read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and I knew nearly nothing of the plot before attending a showing of director Cary Joji Fukunaga's latest version of Jane Eyre for the big screen. Lucky me. Going into Jane Eyre completely unaware allowed for a thrilling, organic experience; the plot unraveled before my eyes, the dialogue was fresh and sharp, and the mystery remained just that until the climactic finale. Which is why I would suggest to any and all who have never read of (or cared about) the story of Jane Eyre to let this film be their first exposure. It's worth every penny.
The plot follows the life of a plain-looking girl named Jane Eyre (played by Mia Wasikowska) whose miserable childhood sees her cast out by an aunt and abused in a strict boarding school before landing at Thornfield Hall, an estate where she is to be a governess. There Jane bewitches the handsome master of the household, Rochester (the brooding Michael Fassbender) but the more he falls in love with the young woman the more Jane is spooked by the strange occurrences in the mansion. Without giving too much away, Jane is awoken several nights to the sounds of a figure wandering the halls, horrifying screams, an attack on a Thornfield guest, and much more. Fukunaga's Jane Eyre traps its Gothic romance in a haunted house and the result is both thrilling and nerve-racking.
Screenwriter Moira Buffini's incredible adaptation restructures the narrative of Bronte's piece, whisking together a mixed chronology that only enhances the film's suspense. The movie opens on the titular Jane desperately running away – but from where we can't be sure. A voice shouts out her name, the echo of which hangs frozen in the air. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman shoots Jane on the bleak landscape of dead grass and grey skies; as the young girl flees she's belittled by the rolling hills, nothing more than a speck, that is until Dario Marianelli's somber score rushes like a cold wind, sweeping the audience into Jane's journey. We're going with her.
After spooking Rochester's horse on the road to Thornfield Hall, Jane must accompany her injured employer for a fireside chat. Rochester asks his governess to divulge her 'tale of woe' – the grim details of her destitute and unprivileged life – but Ms. Eyre won't say a word. Jane is a fiercely independent woman who refuses to allow the abuses and subordinations of her childhood to define her. Rochester smirks, intrigued; no tale of woe can stay hidden forever. The moment lingers – a revealing anecdote that links the two very separate parts of this story: mystery and romance.
Though many have played Jane Eyre in countless film adaptations before her, Mia Wasikowska's portrayal of the deprived yet passionate governess is entirely engrossing. She's physically timid but has the strength of wit that challenges the guarded Mr. Rochester, played as curt and near sinister by Michael Fassbender. The pair verbally spar with delectable dialogue that Buffini has converted from Bronte's book; don't let the Victorian-era intimidate you – the script is as sharp and easy to understand as anything well written today. Fassbender is coarse and impudent while Wasikowska is steadfast and refined. In fact, I might say that my only complaint is that I wished Wasikowska's Jane wasn't quite so subtle with her longing of Rochester; at times it seems as if his love will remain unrequited. She does, however, float through the domineering halls of Thornfield white as a ghost, petrified yet curious enough to maintain the audience's attention. Fassbender captivates throughout, his allure masking the dark secrets of his estate for nearly the entire film.
A few other noteworthy actors give strong performances in Fukunaga's bleak and tempestuous Jane Eyre: Dame Judi Dench is Mrs. Fairfax, the benevolent keeper of Thornfield Hall, while Jamie Bell appears as St. John Rivers, a young minister who gives Jane shelter during her desperate need. Others to leave their mark on the film include Sally Hawkins as Jane's wretched aunt and Simon McBurney as the self-righteous head of Lowood Institution.
I'm approaching this latest incarnation of Bronte's beloved novel from the unique perspective of having never read the classic literature favorite nor seen any previous versions. I am not able to comment on the degree to which Fukunaga's version is true (though I hear it's a particularly accurate rendition) but in the end, I don't think that matters. This Jane Eyre can speak for itself, presenting a dichotomous 'tale of woes' to completely fresh eyes. I was fascinated by the love affair of two intellectual equals whose desires challenge the social norms of the period, and I was enthralled by what lay hidden behind the tapestry (you'll see what I mean.) It's a difficult task to make the hearts of your audience race both in rapture and suspense, but the stark moodiness of Fukunaga's Jane Eyre succeeds on each count.
Cate's Rating: 9 out of 10