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Jane Eyre

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre.

Plain Jane, Rochester bound again

Jane Eyre

Early in Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the 10-year-old Jane (Amanda Clarkson) is asked by a cant-oozing, Uriah Heep-like clergyman how she will manage to escape the punishment of Hell. He has been summoned by the girl’s abusive aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), to take the unwanted child off her hands. The precociously independent-thinking and perceptive girl responds, “I must keep in good health and not die.” This exchange is very much as Brontë presented it, and signals the strong will and moral convictions that will guide the youngster’s way in life. Young Clarkson is appropriately and vividly determined.

Thus begins one of the most famous and daunting personal odysseys in English literature. Brontë’s novel is a virtual prototype for a century and a half of works whose young women grapple with emotional, ethical, and socially constructed challenges. It has become a touchstone for feminists, and its influence can be at least faintly discerned even in popular art like the Twilight series. Most of the various film and television versions have predictably and sensibly focused on Jane’s fraught love affair with the romantically tortured Edward Rochester, and so does this compact and efficiently organized film, although it also manages to devote a little attention to the social structures and assumptions that define the protagonist’s problematic status in 1820s England. The novel was written a quarter-century later.

Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini begin their film somewhere past the novel’s halfway point, as the distraught Jane (Mia Wasikowska) makes her desperate escape from Rochester’s estate and his arms. Penniless and ill, she’s taken in by a country parson, St. Jean Rivers (Jeremy Bell, looking rather younger than the book’s character), and his two spinster sisters. She and the viewer then revisit the history that led to her plight. The device works well enough, better than might be expected. Since so much has to be excluded from any film version of a long and complex novel like this, it doesn’t hurt to reframe the story. It reduces the feel of a rushed precis that such efforts often wind up having.

Fukunaga seems to have worked carefully. His film has a sense of restraint; it doesn’t underscore the material’s melodramatic potential most of the time, but there’s an emotional undercurrent running through it that erupts now and then. His pacing and editing don’t create the greatest degree of tension possible, but he has opted for a steadier, more thoughtful approach, one that builds feeling more slowly. He’s shot much of the film in natural light and Adriano Goldman’s photography has a subdued color range that lends a further sense of suppressed emotion (although now and then Fukunaga and Goldman give us starkly dramatic compositions).

The director’s method is less problematic than the central performance. For much of the first half of the film, Wasikowska’s Jane is, in a sense, absent. This doughty, passionately self-reliant girl who declares (in the novel) that the more alone and scorned she is, the more she will believe in herself doesn’t come across in Wasikowska’s performance. The 18-year-old Jane who arrives at Rochester’s Thornfield Hall to tutor his young ward is a little too cool and self-contained, her voice and eyes communicating little of the passion that’s banked but not extinguished. The character described by Marxist critic Terry Eagleton as “an extraordinary amalgam of smoldering rebelliousness and conventionalism, quivering sentimentality and blunt rationalism” isn’t identifiable in Wasikowska’s portrayal. Admittedly, this is a hard point for an actor to make, but this very young actress seems too inert. She fares better later on, when she’s called upon to express overwhelming disappointment and misery, though. Michael Fassbender’s Rochester is much more of a success. He’s appropriately waspish, testy, and sardonic, and, eventually, also an ardent and desperate lover.

This Jane Eyre manages to be a sturdily carpentered, clearly narrated, and an often enough affecting and involving interpretation of Brontë’s novel, and for some, no doubt, a reliable introduction to it.

Watch the trailer for Jane Eyre

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