Though Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” is the eleventh movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s iconic gothic novel, the dark elements of the film overshadow the traditional love story, giving the tale a fresh if not altogether congenial flavor.
Moira Buffini’s screenplay stays true in letter, if not in spirit, to the original novel’s basic storyline. Jane (Mia Wasikowska) is mistreated by her aunt in her youth, attends a dismal boarding school for a time, and ends up as a governess to the mysterious Mr. Rochester’s (Michael Fassbender) young ward, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore). But while the plot is familiar, the movie’s artistic emphases are less so.
At film’s outset, instead of focusing on Jane and Rochester’s mild flirtation as the novel does, Fukunaga chooses instead to direct attention to the mystery enshrouding Rochester’s mansion. The audience is led to overlook the interplay between Jane and Rochester in favor of learning why screams and maniacal laughter echo from the darkest corners of the manor at night. The horror aspects of the gothic storyline are thus privileged over its romantic ones.
Within this claustrophobic atmosphere, Wasikowska’s portrayal of Jane is ideal. Her statue-like stillness—reminiscent of the submissive femininity of the Victorian era—works well in contrast with her piercing gaze, which hints at a fire burning within her ostensibly docile character that societal conventions could not extinguish. Wasikowska walks an emotional tightrope throughout, projecting Jane’s fear and sadness concerning her relationship with Rochester from beneath a socially-imposed mask of passivity. She plays the character of Jane as though on the verge of a mental breakdown, and in doing so makes the emotional pain inflicted upon her character by the film’s events that much more palpable.
Less successful within the film, and particularly its horror-tinged environment, is Michael Fassbender as Jane’s would-be lover, Rochester. In line with the film’s more macabre stylings, Fassbender attempts to fuse Rochester’s charming façade with an element of unsettling instability—but the resulting performance is more confusing than engaging. Rochester’s advances toward Jane come across as desperate and creepy rather than gentlemanly and sweet. Thus, while it is apparent that Rochester is taken with Jane, it never appears as if his intentions are entirely noble, undermining the story’s central romance.
Even as the movie’s tonal choices prove to be of mixed quality, the artistry which creates them serves as the film’s most appealing feature. When Jane wanders around the mansion lost in thought, the film is edited to look choppy and unsteady, aptly reflecting the character’s sense of uncertainty. The same technique is also effectively deployed when Jane flees from Rochester; it is as if the audience is fleeing along with her.
Fukunaga also makes constant use of evocative lighting schemes to generate the movie’s moody ambiance. The scenes concerning the mystery of Rochester’s mansion are appropriately dark—even the audience struggles to see the characters in the dim candlelight. By contrast, those scenes in which Jane and Rochester revel in their love for one another are brighter, even as they are never entirely vivid, in a nod to the constraining nature of the film’s social setting.
Costume designer Michael O’Connor contributes greatly to the film’s realism; his outfits feel authentic rather than like Hollywood-enhanced versions of the period wardrobe. O’Connor’s elaborate 19th-century suits and gowns—complete with hoopskirts—do much to enliven the film’s setting and make it believable; indeed, to take advantage of O’Connor’s talent, Fukunaga shifted the events in the original novel from 1830 to 1840, thereby incorporating a more diverse array of English fashions. The costume design is thus an example of creative license enhancing the novel’s retelling, rather than muddying it, as the film’s darker narrative lens occasionally does.
In the end, while Wasikowska and Fassbender’s on-screen interplay seems to be a little mismatched, the film as a whole does an adequate job of preserving the key elements of the eldest Brontë sister’s classic novel. Though not entirely successful in the endeavor, the film distinguishes itself as a unique adaptation by shifting the story’s tone from one of a classical romance to one of a dark and troubled love affair. Through it all, the film’s exquisite cinematography and artistic choices remind the audience that Jane’s tale is one of sorrow and woe at the hands of fate—circumstances that are only made bearable by the strength that she finds within herself. For all its unevenness, “Jane Eyre” deserves credit for enabling an old medium to convey a new message.
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