Jane Eyre

A beautifully understated take on the Charlotte Brontë novel
Jane Eyre
Rating: Jane EyreJane EyreJane EyreJane Eyre

Directed by Cary Fukunaga. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins, Simon McBurney, Holliday Grainger, Tamzin Merchant, Imogen Poots, Sophie Ward, Amelia Clarkson, Freya Parks. Written by Moira Buffini, from the novel by Charlotte Brontë.

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A muted, often beautifully understated take on the Charlotte Brontë novel, Cary Fukunaga´s Jane Eyre is the kind of literate, refined production that might be more at home in a BBC miniseries. Condensed into a 120-minute feature, the film glosses over a lot of details, and some characters have just about been excised. But it still rates alongside the best of the Eyre adaptations.

The story of Jane Eyre will be familiar to most: even if you haven´t read the novel, or seen any previous adaptations, chances are you´ve seen something that borrows the plot. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, this version handles its secrets with utmost care; fans able to fill in the many blanks will get the most out of this adaptation, but others are dutifully catered for.

In Fukunaga´s film, we first meet Jane Eyre in a state of despair as she is taken in by St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. Jane brings with her a tale of woe: she was raised by her cruel aunt, Sarah Reed (Sally Hawkins), tormented by her cousin John, and sent to the Lowood Charity School at age ten, where she endured further hardships.

Eight years later, Jane leaves the school to work as a governess at Thornfield Hall, working with housekeeper Alice Farifax (Judi Dench) and taking care of the young Adčle (Romy Settbon Moore). The master of the house, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) takes an interest in Jane, and she in him. But there is more going on in Thornfield Hall than she is initially aware.

Fukunaga has a great feel for the material: evocative, gothic, even haunting, complimented by some heavy cinematography by Adriano Goldman, who shot the director´s previous feature, the highly-praised Sin Nombre. I like the narrative framework, opening with Jane´s breakdown after the big reveal; editing seems abrupt at first, glossing over Jane´s childhood, but it settles into a fine rhythm with her arrival at Thornfield.

Wasikowska, who carried Burton´s Alice in Wonderland as far as she could take it last year, is perfectly cast in the lead: she has such a beguilingly strong screen presence that she sets the tone for the entire film with her somber expression. Fassbender, who may not be a typical Rochester, is also quite good. Others have complained about the lack of chemistry between the two, but it is there; fitting with the overall tone, the mutual attraction is apparent from their very first scene together, but never overstated, bubbling beneath the surface for the duration.

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Easily the eldest Brontë´s best-known work, Jane Eyre has been filmed countless times over the past century, including versions from the usual suspects: a number of BBC miniseries, a mid-90s Franco Zefferelli production, a 1970 TV movie with George C. Scott in the Rochester role, and Robert Stevenson´s 1943 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. The basic plot has also been rehashed, even in the horror genre; notably in the Val Lewton chiller I Walked with a Zombie.

Yet, a definitive cinematic version remains elusive, with the 1943 version probably coming closest. Fukunaga´s film comes close to matching it, and maybe even surpasses it.

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