Jane Eyre: Fukunaga’s Version of Bronte Classic, Starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender

The new screen version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and scripted by Moira Buffini, is a stark, spare, passable but unexciting adaptation.

Over the past century, there have been at least a dozen versions of Bronte’s dramatic novel, which was published in 1847, both for the big-screen and for the small-screen.  If memory serves, two of the most popular renditions were directed by Robert Stevenson in 1944 (with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine) and by Franco Zeffirelli in 1996 (starring William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg).  There was also a good TV version in 1971, with George C. Scott and Susannah York.  (See Comment).

Fukunaga, who has established a name with his harshly compelling Central American immigrant tale “Sin Nombre,” might have been the wrong director for such an essentially romantic text.  For me, his effort to infuse a stark, spare contemporary look into the cherished novel is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand he has made a severe, emotionally muted for the most part version of the beloved book, sort of reducing it to its basic elements, but on the other, his strategy has deprived the melodrama from its strong emotionalism.

I am not sure that screenwriter Moira Buffini (who previously penned the underwhelming Stephen Frear’s Tamara Drewe”) has done an effective job either.  Probably with the encouragement of the producers and the director, Buffini has altered the narrative structure, especially in terms of the voice-overs that were present in former versions and in playing with the temporal dimension (a good deal of the narrative unfolds as a flashback).

Both structurally and thematically, this “Jane Eyre” is different from the dozen or so previous versions, but being different doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better or more emotionally involving.  In fact, it takes at least half of the movie for the saga to assume its right tone and to generate some genuine feelings; the last reel is particularly effective.

The film stars two of the busiest actors in Hollywood today, both rumored to be rising stars: Mia Wasikowska in the titular role and Michael Fassbender as Edward Rochester.

Sort of in a rush to get to the essence of the romantic drama, this version goes quickly over the earlier sequences of the novel, which detail Jane Eyre’s life of abuse in orphanages.

In brief and broad strokes, the story describes how the young (only 10) orphaned Jane (played by Amelia Clarkson) is mistreated and then cast out of her childhood home Gateshead by her cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed, played by  Sally Hawkins. (In the 1944 version, the part was played by the great Agnes Moorehead).

Consigned to the charity school Lowood, Jane encounters further harsh treatment, but she also gets some education.  Moreover, she meets and befriends Helen Burns (Freya Parks), a poor child who impresses Jane as a soulful yet contented person.

The two instantly become fast and firm friends. Which explains the devastating effects, when Helen gets fatally ill and dies.  (There was not a single dry eye back in 1944, when the young Liz Taylor assumed the role, but here it is presented sort of matter of fact).  The loss strengthens Jane’s resolve to stand up for herself and make the right (and best) choices in life.

 

The real saga really begins when the teenager Jane Eyre (now played by Mia Wasikowska) arrives at Thornfield Hall, the vast and isolated estate where she works as a governess for Adèle Varens, a child under the custody of Thornfield’s brooding and enigmatic master, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender).  In this place, for the first time in her life, she is treated with kindness and respect by the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench).

Though strong-willed, the imposing estate and Rochester’s own imperial, dominant, and troubled nature—put to test her resilience and survival.  Rather quickly and unexpectedly, Jane’s interest is piqued by Rochester. The cold, distanced man engages her in games of wit and storytelling, and divulges to her some of his innermost thoughts and feelings.

However, Richester’s’s dark, swinging moods also prove troubling to Jane, compounded by the mysterious places and strange happenings in the house, especially the off-limits attic.

In some of these sequences, “Jane Eyre” recalls another gothic romance, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” in which Joan Fontaine plays the bewildered, fragile child-bride of Laurence Olivier.  Incidentally, in 1944 Joan Fontaine essayed the role of Jane Eyre in one of the best Hollywood versions of the book, which was shot by George Barnes (who had also worked on “Rebecca’).

Unlike Fontaine’s character in “Rebecca” (which, by the way, is nameless), Jane is a courageous girl, and in her communications with Rochester, she dares to intuit a deep bond connection with him, expressing her firm opinions, standing up for her rights, talking back—and other things a girl of her age and social class is not expected to do.

Turning point occurs when Jane uncovers the terrible secret that Rochester had hoped to hide from her forever. But Jane realizes that her as choices limited.

Nonetheless, when the situation becomes unbearable, Jane flees the scary place and finds home and some solace in the company of the clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his family. As she recuperates in the Rivers’ Moor House and looks back upon the tumultuous events that led to her escape, Jane wonders if the past is ever truly past.

When St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) makes Jane a surprising proposal, she realizes that she must return to Thornfield, determined once and for all to secure her own future and to conquer the demons that had haunted both her and Rochester.

Sharply uneven on every level, thematically and visually, this “Jane Eyre” veers from a stately Masterpiece Theater style to an utterly modernist, dry and stark approach.  If some sections look old-fashioned, it’s a result of the fact that the director and his cinematographer have decided to use the 1:85/1 shooting format (rather than the norm of 1:33/1).  But for other scenes, they have employed hand-held camera, I suppose to increase the immediacy of and tension in the text.

I have to admit that I am partial to the 1944 adaptation, directed by Robert Stevenson, and starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in the iconic roles, perhaps because it was the first screen version that I saw in high-school, when as a member of the literary club, we read and then saw the picture and discussed both works.

The very gifted Fassbender (who made a striking impression in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” two years ago) may be too handsome, and too soft and gentlemanly in the film’s earlier chapters; in the book, Rochester is described as physically unattractive. He lacks the menacing threat and brooding manner that Orson Welles (and George C. Scott and William Hurt in later renditions) brought to the iconic part.  His performance improves as the saga unfolds, and he reaches the right emotional notes in the last reel–the very ending is extremely touching.

Wasikowska, who this season alone was in two major films (playing the titular role in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and the daughter of lesbian moms Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in the serio comedy “The Kids Are All Right”) gives a more coherent or consistent reading to her demanding and dominant part.  Made to look less physically attractive than she really is, Wasikowska’s interpretation is modernist and in tune with the director’s intended strategy.

Among other things, Wasikowska’s performance explains why Bronte’s heroine was well ahead of her time, and has continued to inspire new generations of devoted readers and viewers over the past 164 years.