sat 25/05/2024

Jane Eyre | reviews, news & interviews

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

Not so plain: great performances in an invigorating new version

Charlotte's web: Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska as Rochester and Jane Eyre

As fresh and enchanting as the first flushes of spring, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s imaginative retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century proto-feminist novel captures the thrill of attraction with rare perception, sweep and tenderness. It foregrounds the book’s Gothic elements and the lovers’ links to the natural world, showing love itself as both a benign and devastating force of nature.

Rochester’s voice is carried to Jane on the wind, their passion burns like fire and Jane’s heartbreak is as bone-chilling as the blanket of cold earth she weeps upon.

Screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) has boldly restructured the plot so that it begins with an adult Jane’s anguish, gradually revealing how such frenzied sorrow came about. Throwing the shutters open and letting in the rejuvenating air and light (which could be a metaphor for the adaptation’s refreshing approach), Jane (Mia Wasikowska) takes flight from Thornfield Hall, finding refuge with the sympathetic Rivers family, who are lead by the pious St John Rivers - an impressive Jamie Bell (pictured below with Wasikowska).

jamie-bellFrom here we dip into the trauma of Jane’s childhood in cursory but effective detail: her callous treatment by her relations, the Reeds - in particular by her aunt Sarah (Sally Hawkins) and cousin John (Craig Roberts), who shower her with undisguised contempt before Jane is branded wicked and spiteful and packed off to the Lowood Institution. Despite suffering further spirit-crushing indignities at the hands of Mr Brocklehurst (a slitherily effective Simon McBurney) Jane finds love in the fleeting friendship she shares with Helen Burns (Freya Parks).

On leaving Lowood, an adult Jane secures work as a governess at Thornfield Hall, alongside kindly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Judi Dench), caring for the precocious but neglected youngster Adèle Varens (Romy Settbon Moore). There she falls for Adèle’s guardian, and the master of the house, Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender), who (of course) hides a terrible secret, the uncovering of which will result in Jane’s frantic introductory flight.

Fukunaga’s blistering directorial debut Sin nombre (2009), set in modern-day Mexico, might seem an unlikely companion piece with its depiction of gang warfare and impoverished immigrants on a desperate quest for a better life. However, while Sin nombre’s palette is as bold and sultry as Jane Eyre’s is muted and cool, it does display a similar sensitivity to character, and features not one but two instances of potentially redemptive romance.

This year’s hardest working actor, Fassbender makes for a provocatively and pleasingly smouldering Rochester. His character’s suggestion that he might not be much to look at will be met with more than a few guffaws from those with fully functioning eyesight. Fassbender is an actor of ready charm (see also Fish Tank) and - as he displayed quite literally in X-Men - supernatural magnetism. When he locks Jane in his intense emerald gaze there is no doubt he sees to the very core of her being. Fukunaga’s film teases out and enhances the egalitarian message of the book; Rochester finds Jane intriguingly unusual (a “curious sort of bird”) and, despite her socially inferior status and the gender politics of the time, ultimately sees her as his equal.

jane eyre01As Jane, Wasikowska (pictured left) is that rare young Hollywood actress (in fact she originally hails from Australia) that can actually play lowly, plain and, yes, vaguely Northern (anyone who caught One Day will presumably be thankful they didn’t cast Anne Hathaway). It’s an earnest, quietly impressive performance that sings with passion and sorrow when required. There is such emotional integrity and fervour to the exchanges of Jane and Rochester that these moments transcend any familiarity with the material and are often enough to move one to tears.

The film is delightful in its detail. As Jane despairs at her lot, Helen reassures her that she is indeed loved and, as Helen reaches out, Jane flinches with simple unfamiliarity at what is possibly her first kind human touch. Later, when Jane is consumed with hurt and jealously at Rochester’s apparent courtship of Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots), Adèle observes it writ in the tension of her hand. The casting is superb throughout, although such is the necessary abbreviation of the plot that even key characters become small parts. Even Dame Judi fades with subtlety and dignity into the background as the leads simmer at the fore.

Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is a film whose two excellent central performances are buoyed by the soaring direction which plays the romance to the hilt. This is an invigoration of the text and, with its fluid, bold yet sensitive camerawork, it’s fresh and relevant, ethereal and urgent. Jane is a modern woman out of sorts with her time, who wants to express her frustrations and will – her cause is one a 21st-century audience can get behind and the freewheeling directorial style beautifully captures her modern spirit. Fukunaga has liberated Jane Eyre from the corset of period dramas and their often stifling reverence and, for those who remember the story only from the doldrums of the classroom, it’s a chance to fall in love with it for the very first time.

Watch the trailer for Jane Eyre

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