Adapting a classic work of literature can be a risky prospect for any filmmaker, particularly when said work is as familiar and oft told as Jane Eyre (which, leaving aside the novel, has been filmed an astonishing twenty-one times according to IMDb). The question must be asked whether or not a new version is ever going to be necessary, for surely every aspect of the story has been explored on the screen already. Director Cary Fukunaga wisely chooses to play it fairly straight with this latest version of Jane Eyre, and what results is a moody and atmospheric film that hits all the right notes of the classic tale.
For a novel to be adapted repeatedly as Jane Eyre has speaks volumes about the quality of the source material, and as such it’s probably unnecessary to delve into the story too much here. What Fukunaga brings to her version of the story however is a focus on certain themes in the novel, most notably that of deceit. The story is a very dark one, perhaps the best representation of Gothic literature ever created, and the notion of deceit looms over the narrative like the ever-present clouds over Thornfield Hall. Accused of deception at an early age by her benefactor, the villainous Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), in fact Jane (Mia Wasikowska) herself appears to be the only pure and honest character in the story. However, though not in any way malicious, her life remains one of deception out of self-preservation. Wasikowska’s Jane is every bit the plain and solitary young girl of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, and her the mask she wears is of a person who wishes for nothing more than to blend into the background, not just at Thornfield, but in the world as a whole. There are rare occasions when she does voice her desire for more out of her existence than a life of servitude, but in the absence of any interior narration and without the luxury of the novel’s pseudo-autobiographical, almost diary style, it’s difficult to read Jane and understand her true nature. Only when she meets Rochester (Michael Fassbender), a man who sees through her deception to the passionate and ambitious core of her being, does Fukunaga expose the real Jane, and it’s in these scenes that the film shines. Bronte’s wonderful verbal sparring between Jane and Rochester remains intact, with many lines of dialogue lifted from the novel in their entirety, and the love between them blossoms from the novelty of each having an intellectual and moral equal.
Casting Wasikowska and Fassbender was an excellent choice on the part of Fukunaga, yet the rest of the cast also excel in the supporting roles. Most surprising is Jamie Bell as St. John Rivers, breaking away from his typical youth characters and showing real growth as a performer. Rivers functions as an almost polar opposite to Rochester, and Bell plays him as ineffectual and emotionless, precisely what Jane doesn’t wish to become herself. When the moment comes for Jane to finally stand up to Rivers and choose between what she desires and what is ‘proper’, Bell delivers some of his finest work.
There are no doubt still going to be many people to debate whether audiences need another version of Jane Eyre, and obviously in a two-hour film there are going to be aspects of the novel deemed important by some that had to be left out. There is worth to the film though, and for people in search of a classic story told with genuinely suspenseful atmosphere fuelled by terrific performances, Jane Eyre more than fits the bill.