There have been so many Jane Eyre adaptations (by my count, 10 since 1934) that you have to slow-clap our failure at this point to come up with an original story line. This Jane Eyre, however, approaches the classic tale from a different direction by slicing up Brontë’s timeline. We don’t begin at the very beginning but rather half-way through, when Jane (Mia Wasikowska) wanders into St John Rivers’ (Jamie Bell) house, soaked and depressed – although, with Jane’s demeanour, it’s debatable whether she’s depressed, lost in thought, or just hungry. We discover the rest of the story through flash-backs, brought on by silent reminiscing and prodding questions. This format is an interesting way to tell Jane Eyre, and it succeeds in adding texture to the plot’s overall tone by jumping from childhood trauma to adult drama. That said, this approach sacrifices the classic story to a pretty brutal round of editing, cutting out iconic, exciting moments for lack of time and space.
It seemed to be the fashion in 1840’s England that if you were an orphan whose guardians mistook reading for spiteful disobedience, you were promptly shipped off to boarding school. Jane Eyre is one such orphan, although to us her “Satanic attitude” translates to “spunk”. After a full and thorough education that successfully suffocates any whisper of personality, Jane finds a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall, wherein resides the stern bachelor, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Between teaching Rochester’s ward and staring longingly out the window at the distant moors, Jane somehow becomes Rochester’s confidant. It is his deep, dark secrets that eventually frighten Jane away, forcing her to take her chances with the expansive, forbidding countryside rather than risk temptation and damning her soul. Those Victorians, eh?
Historical adaptations are fun. The costumes are pretty, the houses are large and haunted, the characters are troubled and secretive, and the idea of a raging party is if someone plays the piano. The problem with some historical dramas, however, is that you can’t understand what they’re saying. When I was a kid I thought Pride and Prejudice was brutally boring – until I grew up, read the book, and understood the lingo. Having read Jane Eyre I thought this film would be a piece of cake. It wasn’t. The characters whisper passionate poetry to each other, the likes of which would make Shakespeare squint with befuddlement, and they whisper it very quickly. You understand the gist of what everyone’s saying, but subtitles and frequent re-watches are a must to fully appreciate the dialogue.
Still, a Brontë story is nothing without symbolism. Jane Eyre is filtered with a cloudy, bluish tone, making you feel cold and the characters look secretive and withdrawn. At the same time fire plays a key role, notably absent in some scenes and a little too close to the woodwork in others. Opposites are obviously important, and none more so than the mouse and the tyrant. Mia Wasikowska is perfectly cast as Jane: she is petite, quiet, plain, and reflective. Fassbender, meanwhile, is the strong, temperamental Rochester, but almost a little too much so. He falls for Jane suddenly and without warning, sharing deeply guarded secrets without so much as a, “By the way.” This is where the chopped-up story line hits a wall. You don’t feel a building relationship between Jane and Rochester. One minute he’s yelling at her and the next he’s tormented by the thought of a loveless life extinguished by blahblahblahbiddyblah. A master shouldn’t be fawning over his governess or trusting her wholeheartedly with his reputation (Victorians, am I right?), but Rochester doesn’t even blink before welcoming Jane into his skeleton closet full of hungry, dismembered zombies.
Jane Eyre is an obviously dramatic movie, shot between the expansive English countryside and tiny, frigid stone cottages. It’s not a movie for smiles and chuckles. I have seen other adaptations do a better job (namely the 2006 mini-series), but for a 120 minute movie this Jane Eyre isn’t too far from the goal line. Plus, the music is lovely. However, I wish that Blanche Ingram’s character was more fully developed and the unexplained mystery of Rochester’s French, orphan ward was properly explained. Jane’s subdued character also lacks a little spark. It’s true she had the gumption whipped out of her at a young age, and Wasikowska accurately plays the contemplative mouse, but director Cary Fukunaga should have been able to capture Jane’s quiet passion and make the audience feel her hidden struggle. Even just a twinkle in the eye would have added a bit more colour to this grey film. Jane Eyre is a 5/10.