Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre has proven a popular and enduring subject for cinematic adaptation, being seen more than a dozen times from hand-wringing silent-era melodramas to Robert Stevenson’s swooning 1940s romance and a trio of BBC television miniseries, the most recent in 2006.
For this handsome interpretation of the literary classic Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga and his screenwriter Moira Buffini have streamlined the book’s chaptered chronology into a clever and effective non-linear structure. The story opens right in the middle as frantic Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) stumbles over a windswept moor, escaping some dread fate. Rescued by upstanding, mutton-chopped pastor St John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his adoring sisters, Jane begins to recount her life in flashback; detailing her orphaned childhood, her early life with her cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins) in a remote mansion house and her subsequent removal to a grim boarding school run by the gimlet-eyed Mr Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney). As Jane explains where she has come from we come to know something about her character: she is modest, intelligent, strong-willed and direct.
Years pass at the school and Jane is trained to become a governess. She finds her first job as tutor to a young French girl named Adele at Thornfield House, a rambling stately pile in the middle of nowhere. There she is met by the kindly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Judi Dench), who makes her welcome and explains the unusual structure of the household. The master of Thornfield Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender), only mentioned in passing, spends most of his time away from the house on business. Months of routine solitude pass before the gruff Rochester returns to the house where, over the course of a year or more, he falls in love with plain-speaking Jane. Despite the rigours of the class system and Mrs Farifax’s tutting adherence to protocol, she falls in love with him. But there is more to Rochester than his polished appearance would suggest and just as Jane seems to have finally met her destiny, a long-hidden secret threatens to spoil her happiness.
Fukunaga sets his Jane Eyre apart from all the other adaptations by casting the film with young actors, more accurately reflecting Brontë’s original descriptions and giving the romantic strains a fresh tremble. The heart of the story remains Jane’s anguished love for Rochester with Wasikowska and Fassbender making for an mutedly charismatic romantic couple, her forthright humility and independence set against his brash arrogance and cynical sense of entitlement. What the story lacks, perhaps unsurprisingly after decades of retelling, is any element of emotional suspense with the adaptation’s more arch Gothic passions being dampened to better allow the characters to smoulder.
Photographed in painterly candlelight by Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman, emphasising the house’s claustrophobic gloom beneath scurrying grey skies, and scored with a haunting soundtrack from Dario Marianelli, Fukunaga’s Jane Eye is subtly shaded and evocatively understated, reanimating Brontë’s timeless story for a new generation.