Charlotte Bront’s “Jane Eyre” has been brought to the screen many times in television and film adaptations.
Most of these adaptations are the bane of English class movie days – either they streamline the story too much, leaving the book to seem long-winded by comparison, or pack in far too much of the novel, making watching it on screen feel as intimidating as the lengthy page count.
But director Cary Fukunaga’s new screen adaptation performs a rare feat. It stays nearly religiously faithful to Bront’s source material, but it also moves at a feather-light pace, bringing the story to the here-and-now and keeping viewers constantly engaged.
The story is one that many are familiar with. The heroine, Jane (Mia Wasikowska), escapes her abused orphan past and becomes a governess in the house of the mysterious Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Jane and Rochester eventually fall in love, but his shady past and a secret hidden within his gloomy estate threatens to tear them apart.
The plot never strays from the original novel or goes further than other adaptations, yet it still stands apart and feels new and fresh.
Despite the love story, Jane is front and center. Rochester is off screen much of the time, and the audience is largely alone with Jane and her thoughts. Although she clearly yearns for him, we get the sense that Jane would do just fine without him. She is painted as a fully independent young woman with a strong moral compass and never falls into the needy, emotionally unstable heroine territory that “Twilight,” which heavily borrows from Bront’s novel, imparts on young tween girls.
Instead of opting for the more traditional, sweeping romantic direction that has been done to death, Fukunaga goes for a more atmospheric and natural approach to the visual style. The screen is never old and musty and is alive with color, as if the oil paintings found on nearly every book cover of the novel never faded.
The largely handheld steadycam cinematography looms over the characters, bringing you into the middle of their lives and adding a sense of intimacy to the usually starched, distant period piece material. It’s a much more visceral experience that speaks the same language as the source material, but never talks itself to death. The story is free to flow with plenty of moments of pure ambience.
This adaptation plays much more heavily upon the gothic horror aspects of the novel. Shadows and fog are spread liberally across the screen, making some shots of Rochester’s manor and the British moorlands seem like they were pulled out of an episode of “Dark Shadows,” which is a good thing. There are also a couple of jump-worthy moments, including a memorable scene involving a seemingly haunted fireplace.
Even the modernized approach to the surface materials would go nowhere if it wasn’t for the performance of the two leads. Wasikowska makes a strong-willed and defiant Jane, moving from ironclad independence to scenes of agonizing vulnerability. Her portrayal will go down as the definitive Jane Eyre, perfectly capturing her voice in the novel with the necessary amount of pluck.
Fassbender’s Rochester is much snarkier and crueler than other takes on the archetypal Byronic hero. His intense but at times tender performance adds such an amount of depth to what could easily be a one-note character. Both actors play off of each other beautifully, making the two willful character’s love affair all the more believable.
People may bemoan the period piece, but Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” shows that there is still more than enough space for them in today’s blockbuster-laden film world. It doesn’t have to be the stuffy, moth ball-ridden genre most expect.
This “Jane Eyre” shows that the story still has prevalence and can still bring an emotional impact to audiences. All the story needed was a new coat of paint, but Fukunaga and his actors perform a full on restoration and work wonders.
“Jane Eyre” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, including a nude image and brief violent content. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Running Time: 121 minutes.