Do we really need another film version of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre? When you’ve got Mia Wasikowska (That Evening Sun, Alice in Wonderland, TV’s In Treatment) and Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds) on hand to take the roles of Jane and her troubled love Rochester, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” Further establishing themselves as two of the better and more interesting actors working today, the pair are central to the success of this subtle yet faithful adaptation of the beloved literary classic.

Fassbender brings a perfectly dark mix of sensitivity and cruelty befitting a man struggling with his past, his class and his nature while Wasikowska’s intelligence shines through Jane even when she has no lines. Both actors imbue their characters with modern life, resuscitating them from the stuffy museum period pieces they could’ve been while avoiding anachronism and keeping them firmly rooted in Victorian era England. They both feel natural even in the more formal cadences required of adaptations of a certain kind of literature.

Though the film shines through its stars, it is sophomore director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) who thrives on the Jane Eyre‘s Victorian restraint and really guides the film. Rather than punching it up or hitting his audience over the head with the themes and emotions of the piece, he wisely gets more mileage out of what isn’t said than what is. Also, there’s a looming gothic horror to the material (you can almost see the Twilight bells going off in the heads of the studio suits), but as in the novel it remains in the background. It’s a constant threat but it never has to manifest itself literally. It provides flavor and mood and illustrates Jane’s state of mind without ever becoming an excuse for an orgy of special effects.

In concert with Fukunaga’s direction, the strikingly delicate watercolor cinematography of Adriano Goldman (City of Men, Sin Nombre) and the subtle, mournful score by Dario Marianelli (Atonement) reinforce the film’s understated tone. While all this reserve works against the film at times – a little more overt passion between Jane and Rochester might’ve solidified their romance for a modern audience and upped the impact of their ensuing troubles – to turn the film into an ordinary melodrama would’ve been a kind of betrayal of the novel.

This version of Jane Eyre is nothing if not true to its source although the novel’s chronology is tinkered with a bit. Instead of a straight line tracing Jane’s life from terrible childhood with an uncaring aunt, to her harsh schooling, to her role as governess and her budding slow burn romance with Rochester and beyond, the film wisely begins two thirds of the way into the story at a moment of high drama with a distressed young Jane crossing a stormy moor alone. By opening at this moment and then flashing back to the beginning, the film injects a needed note of intensity to help carry it over some of the slower stretches. Even if you’re not familiar story, you’re primed to be watching out for the inevitable storm clouds on the horizon.

At the same time, the film necessarily jettisons some of the story’s detail in favor of a kind of survey of the main high and low points in Jane’s life. It’s unavoidable for a literary adaptation, but there’s still an occasional hollowness and a seeming haste to move from one point to another. It’s not a fatal flaw and probably unavoidable, but it’s a reminder that movies and novels don’t accomplish the same things well.

Overall, Jane Eyre is a welcome treat. It’s a worthy interpretation for those who are new to the novel and likely a satisfactory return for those who are already familiar. Most of all, it’ll be a nice surprise for those who’ve never seen Michael Fassbender at work or who only know Mia Wasikowska from Alice in Wonderland.

Jane Eyre (USA/UK 2011). Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Screenplay by Moira Buffini from the novel by Charlotte Bronte. Cinematography by Adriano Goldman. Music score composed by Dario Marianelli. Edited by Melanie Oliver. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Tamzin Merchant and Imogen Poots. 2 hours 1 minute. MPAA rated PG13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content. 4 stars (out of 5)

9 Responses to “Jane Eyre (2011)”

  1. “In concert with Fukunaga’s direction, the strikingly delicate watercolor cinematography of Adriano Goldman (City of Men, Sin Nombre) and the subtle, mournful score by Dario Marianelli (Atonement) reinforce the film’s understated tone.”

    This elements have me excited, even if I’ll admit I wasn’t a big fan of SIN NOMBRE. But I have indeed seen the generally excellent reviews, and appreciated this stellar validation from you in this descriptive piece. The source material is right up my proverbial alley, and the film in on the agenda for tomorrow night.

  2. I think the movie you’re really going to want to see this weekend Sam is Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.

    I’m really struggling with a review of it, hence it’s not up yet, but I predict you’ll go for it.

  3. O man now I need to watch this movie so bad!
    I saw “Sin Nombre” at the sthlm film festival. Even got to talk to the director briefly. Besides being a major cutie and such a nice person Cary Fukunaga is talented.
    “Sin Nombre” left me a little blown away and when he announced that he was going to work on this, I was so intrigued.
    Jane Eyre is after all one of my fav books so I really wanted to know what he could do with it.
    I wasn’t so much aware of the cast then but after seeing what Mia Wasikowska can do… yeah so putting this in my to watch list!

    Thank you for the review! Very well written!

  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Julili.

    Since you’re a huge fan of the material I’ll be really curious to hear what you think of it after the movie. I thought it was very faithful, but my connection to the material isn’t so strong. I’m planning on rereading it here soon.

  5. I like it when they make movies just for me. :)

  6. “I think the movie you’re really going to want to see this weekend Sam is Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.”

    Indeed Craig; I saw it this afternoon, and may give it a five-star rating. It’s an absolutely stunning work, and surely a ten-best of the year. I saw it instead of JANE EYRE, which I’ll see in the near future.

  7. I think you chose wisely Sam, though you may well fall for Jane Eyre too.

    Jennybee, I hope you get to see this soon and I hope you like it as much as me.

  8. This movie was rather disappointing. After reading your review, I was really looking forward to it. But I found it so dry and lacking in passion. And the two leads had no chemistry whatsoever. In fact, Mia Wasikowska had better chemistry with Jamie Bell, who played St. John Rivers.

  9. Sorry to have steered you wrong, Rosie. The beauty and power of it for me was precisely because the passion was restrained. As I said in the review, I think the reserve works against the story at time – I’d have liked a little more overt passion too – but that would’ve been a betrayal of the original material.

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