There’s a moment in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre when Jane [Mia Wasikowska] drinks a cup of tea. That in itself doesn’t come as much surprise – Jane Eyre’s a nineteenth century English classic, it’s practically a requirement that tea be drunk – but what matters is the way she does it. Underneath her corsets and composure, Wasikowska’s character is feeling desperate, seething with unfocused jealousy
Can Fukunaga's new Jane Eyre make us forget about the past efforts of Orson Welles and Franco Zefferelli? Absolutely.
and dolour, but she takes a polite sip, and then replaces the cup on the saucer with scarcely a rattle. It’s a quiet moment, and a show of beautifully still restraint.
Beautifully still restraint is Wasikowska’s stock in trade in this role. She’s a wonderful Jane, shedding her prettiness to become ungainly and believable as the Yorkshire governess, portraying passion without ever tipping into hysteria. Speaking of Yorkshire, Wasikowska’s vowels too, are well turned-out, nothing like the cartoonish Emmerdale vocals Anne Hathaway is currently veering unpredictably in and out of in One Day.
Restraint is an important quality for any Jane to have, because Jane Eyre is far from a restrained story. Gothic romances rarely are. A plot that involves vampiric madwomen, child abuse, violent attacks, bigamy, destructive fires, disrupted weddings, telepathic connections and near-death experiences is doubly ruined by scenery chewing, which is why Wasikowska’s buttoned-up passion is right on the money.
The screenplay, direction and acting create the Jane Eyre Brontë described, an otherworldly character, teeming with imagination and spirit, unbending in her morals and fierce in her capacity to love. Wasikowska’s Jane sits birch-straight whilst being humiliated by pretty socialites and interrogated by her sarcastic employer, only betraying the pain she feels with a fierce blush and a quick tongue. It’s a fabulous performance. The kids are all right? This one’s bloody brilliant.
Wasikowska’s joined by a very capable Jamie Bell [Billy Elliot], as missionary St John Rivers, a warm, wonderful Judi Dench as housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, and Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester.
They’ve yet to cast a Rochester who’s truly as old and unhandsome as the novel made him, and though giving Fassbender the role does nothing to buck that trend, you’ll hear no complaints from me. Rochester’s a damaged hero, unhinged by past wrongs and doomed to a kind of purgatory before he meets imaginative, serious Jane. Fassbender gives the part the right measures of cruelty, danger and vulnerability. As brooding heroes go, he does a fine job.
Moira Buffini’s screenplay captures both the formality and Romantic spirit of Brontë’s prose incredibly well. Jane’s pronouncements sound just as they should, as if spoken by a much older soul. Rochester’s lines start out like the cruel cynic he is at the beginning of the story, before they’re softened by love. Buffini even manages to include a couple of decent laughs (something the Brontës aren’t exactly known for), delivered by Judi Dench’s stout Mrs Fairfax.
As an archetypal tale about the redemptive power of a woman’s love, there are elements of Jane Eyre which can grate to a 21st century viewer. Whilst remaining very much in the 19th century, this new Jane Eyre addresses the frustrations of its women’s lives by dramatising them. Jane’s proto-feminist speech about the lack of action allowed to her gender is followed up by a dinner scene that brilliantly underscores the point. Two of Thornfield’s women and a young girl struggle to maintain the feminine stillness expected of them whilst Rochester plays music loudly, bangs around and carelessly shoots a gun in the background. It’s a scene true to Brontë’s message, dissatisfaction, and time. Action is what women weren’t allowed, which is why the sisters wrote so much of it into their novels.
Fukunaga’s vision of the moors is gothically barren, their colours muted and de-saturated to the point of being monochrome. He makes Thornfield Hall a haunted house, with light teeming from high windows into dark, stone rooms and mist drifting around its grounds. His version of Jane Eyre is a ghost story, quite rightly, but one with a personal narrative rather than an actual spectre at its centre.
This new Jane Eyre probably won’t do much to convince audiences who wouldn’t usually watch a period adaptation, but it’s a genuine treat for those who would. It’s a faithful rendition, even with the dramatic change in chronology and use of flashback. Full of bleak beauty and brought to life by a wonderfully poised cast, Fukunaga’s adaptation sits comfortably amongst the best Jane Eyres we’ve seen. Reader, I loved it.