Unless you’re a jaded critic who’s seen plenty of hair-raising horror movies or a teen bored by everything, there’s one sure thing about the new Jane Eyre movie starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender: you won’t sleep through it.
Director Cary Fukunaga, apparently realizing there are at least 20 versions of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel of an orphaned governess who falls in love with her wealthy and mysterious employer, does us the favor of jumbling things up a bit.
The movie begins with Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall. Weeping and wandering amidst the English moors, she falls on the doorstep of a lonely cottage, whose owner St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) admits her. As she recovers and her benefactors question her about her past, we’re shown flashbacks in lightning stroke breaks that had audience members jumping out of their seats.
Her story begins with her childhood, reared by a despised and despising aunt-in-law. When her cousin attacks her, she retaliates with spirited fury. The outburst earns her incarceration in the dreaded Red Room and ultimately expulsion from Gateshead Hall. Sally Hawkins, as Mrs. Reed, does not dither at Jane’s rebellion against her cruelty, as in the book, but simply tells the girl to “Get out.”
With the crack of switch or a cane, we learn about her life at Lowood School for Orphans, run by the pious Mr. Brocklehurst. Fukunaga treats us to details we don’t ordinarily see in most Jane Eyre productions, such as being disrobed of the expensive dress she wears entering the school. One person basically missing is the kindly Miss Temple, who befriends Jane and clears her reputation as a “liar.” That’s one of the downsides of a film production of Jane Eyre – someone must be cut out.
Jane’s best friend, Helen Burns, is played with extraordinary beauty by Freya Parks. She’s a strawberry blonde with soulful blue eyes that just rivet the audience’s attention, the way Elizabeth Taylor’s did decades ago. The scenes of Lowood are brief and it would have been enriching to hear a little more of Helen’s philosophy before she dies of consumption.
The final jolt brings us to Thornfield Hall and we remain there as Jane enters her post as governess to the ward of “a certain Mr. Rochester.” Judith Dench is certainly not the dithering, simple housekeeper of the novel. She plays Mrs. Fairfax with sense and a good deal of wit. An excellent actress, she plays well against Fassbender’s impossible irascible Mr. Rochester.
If Fassbender is a bit slender for the role physically, he makes it up for it in his range of acting as the brooding master of Thornfield Hall. He makes his presence known, even off screen, shouting at servants and cursing when he shoots at birds from his balcony and misses. Fassbender, in treating with his ward, Adele, goes for an approach I’ve never seen before, which brought howls of laughter from the audience.
We mustn’t forget about our Jane, for although Rochester is the love of every Jane Eyre fan’s life, it is still Jane’s story. Wasikowska is the quintessential Jane. As Mrs. Fairfax observes upon meeting, she is quite young. She’s also small and the right age to be the 18 year-old Jane (Wasikowska is 21 – close enough). Her Jane is reserved, but determined and courageous. Rochester flirts with her, tries to charm her, and puzzles her. However, she’s cautious and doesn’t take the bait readily.
In places, the script deviates from the novel. But in the most key scenes, it’s nearly all Bronte, though without quite so many words. Some critics have complained there’s not enough chemistry between them. In the scene after Mr. Rochester’s bed is set ablaze, the pair smolder in the smoky musk, without quite crossing the values of the times in which they’re set.
It’s a pity there was no gypsy scene in this production; with his humor and timing, Fassbender would have made a marvelous old crone, and it would have been interesting to see Wasikowska’s reaction. Ah well.
Just as it seems all is going well, a mysterious stranger from Rochester’s past appears. He receives the news just as he’s interrogating Jane yet again, to get past her reserve. Fassbender is more angered by the news of this visitor than dismayed. This Mr. Mason seemed awfully young to be the person he’s supposed to be.
In the mansion also are some other guests, including a certain Miss Ingram, towards whom rumor has it Mr. Rochester has conjugal intentions. He gives every indication that marrying her is his intention, flirting with her and admiring her, to the despair of the smitten but quiet Jane.
There is also another resident of the Hall, as Jane is informed by her ward, Adele, one who walks the halls by night like a ghost. When Mr. Rochester’s guest, Mason, is attacked in the middle of the night, she comes close to discovering their identity.
Jane is called away from Thornfield to the bedside of her aunt, who reveals a secret to Jane that will ultimately alter her future financial circumstances. But Jane’s mind is on her uncertain short-term future. Returning to Thornfield Hall, she informs Rochester that she will seek another situation. At that point, amidst a gorgeous scene of blossoming cherry trees, he proposes to her (in the book, the proposal took place in the evening, but what the heck).
Thinking he’s playing games with her again, Wasikowska really tells him off. This is no rote performance. It’s one of those reasons she earns the honor as “the” Jane Eyre. Once convinced, though, despair turns to bliss amidst Thornfield’s beautiful grounds.
The wedding day finally arrives, and it is here the Fassbender proves he’s definitely a front-runner as “the” Mr. Rochester, as he literally drags Jane from Thornfield to the nearby church. His impatience as the ceremony proceeds past the objection stage is finely detailed. But there is an “insuperable impediment” and the wedding is off.
It’s an angrier Jane than normal who finds Mr. Rochester camped out in front of her bedroom door. Wasikowska cuts Fassbender no slack as he offers his apologies. He explains how he came to be married to Bertha Mason. A harrowing scene ensues as Jane tells him firmly that she must leave him and then does so. Some of the footage was edited out (we Eyre Heads have followed the progress of this production closely) and there’s too much of a jump between the parlor scene and when he bursts into her room to find she’s gone (which as a Jane Eyre fan, I was very appreciative to see).
At this point, the movie returns us to the weeping girl on the moors, for the understanding of those not familiar with the book. Jamie Bell is forceful as St. John Rivers. He’s clearly interested in a relationship with Jane and doesn’t so much ask her to marry him as he commands her to do so. Jane is cool, even upon hearing news that someone has been searching for her. One marvelous scene in her new life, more jarring even than the whip crack in the beginning, will leave even die-hard Eyre Heads picking their jaws up off the floor, and add yet more mystery to those who don’t know the novel. It left the audience members whispering and murmuring.
Not to give away endings, but as a certified Eyre Head, this reviewer approves of Fukunaga’s ending. He doesn’t depart from the essentials; it’s not a different ending, just a – different – Mr. Rochester, the much more likely one given the circumstances and Rochester’s impassioned nature than the one Bronte wrote about.
Are there an awful lot of Jane Eyre productions out there? There are, but each one has certain merits but flaws, too, that cause dissatisfaction. The gothic moodiness of the 1944 version with Orson Welles, the charm of the 1983 Timothy Dalton version (and the closest Jane any production had gotten to up until now), the brusqueness of William Hurt’s Mr. Rochester, the utter sexiness of Michael Jayston’s Mr. Rochester, the realistic gruffness of the 1996 Mr. Rochester, as that of George C. Scott.
The 1973 version’s party scene with the duet between Miss Ingram and Rochester is classic. The 1944 version’s portrayal of Jane’s childhood at Lowood School, with the utterly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns, is a classic. The bedroom scene in the 1996 miniseries was a bit over the top and beyond the morals of the time it was depicting, if gratifying to a modern audience.
That climactic scene is the key to the movie. The actor and actress who can both pull that one off will win the favor of Jane Eyre fans everyone. Congratulations to this production of Jane Eyre.