The new movie version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga, is the equivalent of a Reader’s Digest condensed novel. All the elements of the story are evident but the writer’s pace, breadth, and strategy are whisked away, reducing Bronte’s proto-feminist literary work to melodramatic romance in a spooky mansion.
It would have made a fine 4-hour BBC mini-series, with time to breathe like a fine wine, with its genuinely chilly England in the 19th Century atmosphere and a broad if not probing view of class and sexual discrimination. The lovely on-location scenes from the often handheld camera gives the film a fluidity of movement, absorbing the stuffiness from a classic Gothic love story in the lush English countryside. The supporting cast is as fine as Masterpiece Theatre can provide and the story remains riveting. At a roughly two-hour running time though, key plot elements and character motivation are sacrificed to the beating hearts of a young, plain, sex hungry virgin and an older been-around guy beast.
Jane Eyre, the grand-mommy of Gothic romance novels, tells the story of an orphaned English girl suffering a loveless childhood under the rule of abusive relatives and a cruel school for poor girls. In preparation for a life in servitude to the upper class, the intelligent and contemplative Jane savors the independence of adulthood.
She gains employment as governess to a French ward at Thornfield Manor, a spooky country estate governed by the mysterious and wealthy Mr. Rochester. Despite their difference in social status, chemistry clicks and this odd couple fall in love. For Jane, it would be Gothic romance heaven, if it weren’t for a scary madwoman roaming the mansion at night, (the Gothic element), and Rochester’s flirtation with the feminine elite, (the romantic conflict).
Mia Wasikowska is a quirky Jane with the high headiness the character seems to have been born with. Her few kind adult mentors during childhood are not included in this version, making her empowered feminist stance seeming to spring from nowhere. Demure and humble, she lacks a depth of character and there is a rush to capitalize on social independence in sparring matches with Rochester. Wasikowska’s performance is nonetheless effective and the fault lies with the novel’s narrative being unrealized.
In the book, Rochester is described as a brooding ugly man possessing a pronounced sexual allure. The dashing Michael Fassbender certainly doesn’t look the part, but broods well, and again, establishes a rush to identity to curtail the novel’s lengthy passages. He hides a dark secret conveyed through facial worry lines, piercing glances, and an unsettling carefree behavior.
Dame Judi Dench manages to duck out from under her royal celebrity crown and offers a believable portrayal of the lowly and kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. There is also a wonderful and brief performance from Tamzin Merchant as one-third of a trio of siblings who save Jane from certain death on the English moors.
This is a fine movie, falling just short of tapping into the excitement of the novel. As a final example, a memorable moment of the book, Jane’s confrontation with the “ghost” of Thornfield Manor, is omitted from this version. Its inclusion would have added a needed element of suspense to the highly charged emotional atmosphere and would have helped make more of Bronte’s purpose come through.