How do you celebrate the successful completion of a major milestone in your life? Why you go see the latest Jane Eyre film adaptation, that’s how. And that’s just what I did the 6th of May 2011. I was back in my homeland, kiddies and hubby were across an ocean, it was a Friday night, I had something to celebrate and some dear old friends to celebrate with. So, we went to the movies to see Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre.
As with all cinematic adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece, there was much anticipation going in and much discussion afterwards, comparing and contrasting various elements and characters with previous adaptations as well as with the primary source material.
The challenge with all movie adaptations is, naturally, cropping a long, detailed, written narrative into a visual narrative, a feature-length film of two hours or less. Much will – of necessity – end up on the chopping block and on the proverbial cutting room floor. There will always be an editorial ruthlessness, a killing of the darlings; there has to be.
So, the task becomes one of selection – choosing what to emphasize, what to downplay, what to ignore, what to paraphrase, what to drop and on it goes. Decisions. Decisions. There will always be omissions and there will always be critiques of those omissions. It’s the nature of the cinematic adaptation beast. And this is now a rather longwinded way of saying that the 120-minute Jane Eyre from 2011 has bits missing, Brontë darlings long dead and buried – many of them. But it also has something else – a moody, poetic beauty that attempts to capture the gothic, atmospheric essence of the source material.
And a rather fine Mr. Rochester in, ahem, rather tight breeches.
In Medias Res
The film starts with a young woman running, running away, the intricate plaiting of her hair becoming increasingly disheveled, running over the moors, falling, passing out, being rescued. Yes, in this version, we meet St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters (Tamzin Merchant and Holliday Grainger) before we meet Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). In her feverish hallucinations, the first of her backstory is told. This is the orphan Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska), rejected and tormented by her only family the Reeds, a survivor of the deadly typhus outbreak at the Lowood School for Girls, a teacher and a woman in love with and loved by the roguish, brooding, already-married-to-the-madwoman-in-the-attic Mr. Edward Rochester. Who wears rather tight breeches – did I mention that?
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So, much of the film is a flashback, Jane remembering what it was that brought her to this point, running over moors and feverish and recuperating and eventually landing a teaching position at a local school.
Mia Wasikowska is one of the youngest actresses to have portrayed Jane. She was twenty when the film was produced, and her youthfulness lends an air of credibility and authenticity to this tale of a young woman’s awakening. And that’s what this adaptation chooses to focus on – the sensual/sexual awakening of Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre in this version studies nude paintings by candlelight in dark hallways. This Jane Eyre bemoans aloud to Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) that she’s longing for action, for something (or someone – in rather tight breeches) to happen in her life. This Jane Eyre tells the tight-breeched Rochester, played by that beautiful, beautiful man Michael Fassbender, that he’s not handsome, God bless her. This, as his smoldering presence, is about to melt the film for the rest of us.
But we let it pass, forgive, and suspend our disbelief because this film sucks you in. It’s beautifully filmed and artfully lighted with lots of symbolic shadows and their glimpses of the great Unknown. There’s something of a dreamlike quality to it all. The film drifts along, in all its poetic reverie. It’s not quite Jane Eyre, more Jane Eyre-esque, and that’s totally okay because it just feels so right and is such a pleasure to watch in and of itself. I say “it”, but, um, yeah, did I mention a rather fine Mr. Rochester in rather tight breeches?
The Jane Eyre Litmus Test
There are two pivotal scenes that I always look for in any film adaptation of the novel. Call it something of a personal litmus test, and if these are done well, well, I am pleased:
1) Jane’s return to Thornfield from Gateshead after her Aunt Reed’s death and her prolonged stay, when she comes upon Mr. Rochester waiting at the stile. This scene is a killer in the book. Jane’s in love with him but won’t say anything, convinced as she is that he’s to marry Blanche Ingram. It’s the first they’ve seen of each other in nearly a month.
2) Jane’s soliloquy just prior to the proposal, where she delivers those hard-hitting lines, which get me every time, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?”
This film does a good job of them both, and, for me, actually nails that proposal scene so wonderfully. Wasikowska’s Jane delivers her lines with such fervor, tinged with indignation and hurt, tears welling in her eyes, yet not falling. It is possibly the best delivery of that soliloquy that I have yet experienced from the many adaptations, I have seen over the years. I like it, I like it a lot.
And I like this film a lot. Despite the many omissions and a too handsome Rochester, which my friends and I all discussed that May night six years ago now, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre captures the romantic essence of the story and weaves such an enthralling tale from it. The film is beautiful.
And did I mention a rather too fine Mr. Rochester with his rather too tight breeches?
Yeah, but I won’t fault the film for that.
And if Thornfield looks familiar in this film, well, that’s because Haddon Hall in Derbyshire has been Thornfield for three – yes, three – Jane Eyre productions now: Zeffirelli’s 1996 version with Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, the 2006 mini-series with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens and, finally, this one, the latest.
Content Note: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence and nudity (a classic painting).
Photos: Focus Features/Universal
Where to Watch: DVD and Amazon Video.
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.
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