by Tony Dayoub
Compared to the couple of adaptations I've seen in the past (neither of which I remember well enough to dwell on) the most recent Jane Eyre best captures the spooky dread of Charlotte Brontë's Gothic novel. Between the previous adaptations' focus on the title character's early feminism and the romance which attracts many of the book's most ardent fans, the first thing to usually go is the story's eerie atmosphere. Not in this film version, though.
Restructuring the story as a flashback, director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) starts at the point in which a homeless, sick Jane (Mia Wasikowska), having deserted her governess job at Thornfield Hall, is taken in by the devout St. John Rivers (Jaime Bell) and his sisters. Once she recovers, St. John finds her a teaching job in the local village, and we learn of Jane's childhood. The orphaned Jane is sent to a boarding school by her cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins). There, the students are all mistreated by the headmaster, and Jane's closest friend dies as a result. Upon graduating, Jane takes the position of governess for the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Master of Thornfield Hall, he is a brooding, unfriendly man "given to ill-tempers," according to the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). A bond develops between Jane and Rochester after she saves his life from a fire mysteriously set in his bedroom while he lay sleeping. Though class separates Rochester and Jane, this leads to the stirrings of a romance in both. But what are the mysterious screams and noises Jane hears echoing through Thornfield Hall late at night? Who set the fire? And what secret is Rochester holding back from Jane?
A great deal of Jane Eyre's success begins with the casting. Usually the pivotal roles of 18-year-old Jane and the much older Rochester are played by actors who are closer in age than the characters as portrayed in Brontë's novel. By casting 22-year-old Wasikowska opposite 34-year-old Fassbender, Fukunaga transposes the romantic strain which (in the novel) arises from class differences to a tension stemming from their age disparity. In present day, the age difference is much more cause for ostracization than class difference is (note the impending nuptials between a British royal and a commoner). Yes, some may argue that young actresses are cast opposite older actors all the time, but the differential is more pronounced in Jane Eyre because Wasikowska, frequently cast as a teenager, looks even younger than her years, while Fassbender projects more maturity than many of his contemporaries.
Set against Thornfield Hall, in which Jane's naivete in carnal matters—her reluctant sexuality, if you will—is amplified and given life as the horrifying wailing of a fearsome "something," Fukunaga's version of the story finds the distinct voice of Brontë that often eludes other adaptations. If there's any flaw, it is that Jane Eyre feels rushed, flying from one important scene to another like a Cliff's Notes summary of the novel without giving even its most significant moments a chance to just sit and breathe. The twist upon which much of Jane Eyre's third act hinges is resolved far quicker than the buildup to it would suggest, to the detriment of the movie and the atmosphere it's cultivating. But despite turning in a noticeably abridged adaptation of the tome, Fukunaga deftly balances the inherent warmth of the story's tempestuous romance with the chilly darkness of its spine-tingling secret to forge a Jane Eyre that falls just short of being definitive.