Dir: Cary Fukunaga
Jane Eyre — again? Some of you will surely mumble and grumble at the mere sight of this all too familiar title and be tempted, I’m sure, to simply write it off — the film, this review, the governess-run-amuck-across-the-moors routine…the whole lot. I’m going to come out and anticipate the knowing eye-rolls, the exasperated sighs of anyone wary of a female reviewer’s seemingly requisite praise of the newest Jane Eyre movie…and I’m going to urge you, ever so gently, to suspend your assumptions for the three minutes it will take to read this little article.
Say what you will about us girls and our collective penchant for musty, moody, Gothic, proto-feminist and bodice-throbbingly romantic Brit-chick-lit – but we know our Brontës. I’ll admit that we can get uppity if anyone dares scoff at our beloved authoresses (and for that I now offer my apologies). But we also cast the fiercest critical eye on each and every upstart adaptation of a book that some of us know almost by heart – and for that reason, we are the toughest audience to crack. I myself can boast a certain degree of intimacy with Charlotte Brontë’s seminal classic; and I can say unreservedly that Cary Fukunaga’s atmospheric and reverent adaptation of said novel is faithful, classy and artfully crafted for a 21st century audience of lifelong devotees, new recruits and doubtful cynics.
That’s saying a hell of a lot. Consider the legacy Fukunaga is up against: a story that has been beloved in print, immortalized on screen and then re-hashed, chopped up, inflated, sexualized and otherwise appropriated dozens of times since the dawn of talking movies is no easy thing to simply pick up and shoot. It is a gamble, a blasphemy — and a resounding challenge to landmark versions that have easily obliterated competitors in the past. In other words, Fukunaga’s got balls. Fortunately, he doesn’t let bravado overtake talent or good sense in this case, opting instead for a vintage, classicist re-telling of Jane Eyre that ripens colors, enriches the imagination and edits only where necessary to keep the attention of youngsters and newbies catching their first glimpse of life according to the iconic but admittedly long-winded English novel.
With a cast neatly split between relative newcomers (like Mia Wasikowska, who nails the lead as a refreshingly yet realistically strong Jane) and British mainstays (Judi Dench and Jamie Bell take on the important but hardly riveting roles of Mrs. Fairfax and Mr. Rivers, respectively), Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre plays the line between full-blown, sometimes starkly produced TV miniseries and truncated, glamorized Hollywood fare to find the most appealingly authentic cross-section possible. Michael Fassbender does well as the formidably gruff Mr. Rochester, relying neither on too-good looks nor Orson Welles impressions to carry the role and instead bringing an intensity and brooding edge all his own to counter Wasikowska’s powerful gaze and steady self-confidence amidst the gothic secrets of Thornfield Hall. These secrets – most of which are heard, suspected, everything but seen in perfect old-school thriller fashion – set the tone for Fukunaga’s take on the story and add some deliciously spine-tingling anticipation to a very well-known tale. Coupled with an attention to period detail in nearly every frame, these elements of suspense and dramatic suggestion create a sensual frenzy around Jane and Rochester’s romance without ever once showing more skin than the clothing of the period realistically allows.
This is a distinct and praiseworthy coup for Fukunaga, one that separates him from many a modern director and proves his dedication to working purely within the story itself. And with Jane Eyre, this is especially critical. Considering the moralistic mainstay beneath all Jane’s passion for Rochester, it would be utterly inappropriate – and yet all too easy – to turn up the heat on Brontë’s telling of their courtship with a skimpy nightdress here or a late-night rendezvous there. But perhaps inspired by Jane’s own passion for an independent spirit and integrity above all else, Cary Fukunaga sticks to the text – and subtext – that Brontë provides in no small measure for anyone willing to use their imagination.
If a handful of cynics and iPod-clutching pre-teens can access that imagination, appreciate the complementary collaboration that Fukunaga and Brontë have achieved in this latest incarnation of Jane Eyre and possibly even read the book itself after seeing the film, I suspect the celestial guardians of great literature and the league of lady readers alike will be more than satisfied. After all, we can’t know what Jane Eyre will look like in the eyes of the next director who fancies a go at her story; but as of 2011, she’s looking damn good.
by Lauren Westerfield