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‘Jane Eyre’ proves Wasikowska’s worth

Jane Eyre

Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Written by Moira Buffini

UK, 2011

A curious meld of influences both classical and contemporary, this umpteenth film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s iconic novel amps the story’s gloom and doom for maximum visual splendor, while offering a strictly face-value approach to its evocations of grief, sexual repression, and class, where a bolder vision might have kept up with the film’s distance-rending performances and appropriately bewitching visions of candlelit chambers and neverending moorland.

Sterling and alive in a role already essayed so often, Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) is Jane Eyre, an unfortunate soul (who nevertheless insists that hers is not a “tale of woe”) falsely lambasted from early childhood as a devious wretch. After being shunned by her surviving family and surviving a long term at a ghoulish, abusive boarding school, she finds work as a governess at a disused manor owned by the curt, mysterious Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), who quickly takes a shine to Jane thanks to her obvious wit and hard-fought independence. They find themselves as equals in a time where such a relationship is met, as best, with bemusement. As Jane’s stay at the manor extends, however, strange occurrences begin to accumulate and suggest that Rochester’s candor might not extend to his personal history.

Jane Eyre has previously inspired four-hour treatments, so it’s no surprise that at a hair under two hours, Fukunaga’s version feels weirdly truncated. (Fukunaga has said that the director’s cut is roughly two and a half hours long.) We receive only the bare essentials necessary to communicate Jane’s childhood hardship, from a perfunctory appearance by Sally Hawkins as her unloving Aunt to a bittersweet sequence involving Jane’s doomed boarding-school acquaintance, with which she shares a tender scene that helps to underline the close quarters shared by love and death in an environment where life is remarkably fragile. This portion of the film holds together on its own and feels of a piece on an emotional level, but lacks clear narrative reasoning for its inclusion, particularly when Jane’s sense of inner strength is already so elegantly expressed through Wasikowska’s “direct” gaze and barely-contained spite in the face of hardship.

If Fukunaga and Buffini possessed the clarity of vision possessed by this version of the character, they might have jettisoned some of the plot points the limited timeframe doesn’t allow for proper fleshing anyway in favor of more time spent in the company of Wasikowska and Fassbender’s carefully calibrated repartee, or in exploiting the plot’s central revelation for more than rug-pulling pathos – perhaps taking a revisionist page or two from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. (As is, the character at the center of this plot twist feels very much like a two-dimensional holdover from a less sophisticated narrative.)

Despite the shortcuts and missed opportunities, Fukunaga’s rendition is more than worth seeing thanks to Wasikowska and Fassbender, as well as the consistently lovely cinematography courtesy of DP Adriano Goldman, her collaborator on Sin Nombre. The unforced emphasis on natural light and the bleak landscapes combine with Fukunaga’s expressive camerawork and the relatively naturalistic performance style to avoid – not unlike in Jane Campion’s Bright Star – the musty atmosphere of many period films. Fukunaga hasn’t attempted to reinvent the tale beyond accenting its Gothic undertones, but it’s a solid effort nonetheless.

Simon Howell