The challenge of adapting a novel, especially one that is so loved and very much considered a classic, is to ensure that it captures the essence of the source material while being a cinematic work that is successful on its own terms. Charlotte Brontë’s 1857 proto-feminist novel Jane Eyre is certainly one that carries an enormous amount of cultural baggage since it is so highly esteemed as an important literary work. Fortunately, this 2011 adaptation by Cary Fukunaga wonderfully brings the story to life in a way that those of us who have never read the novel can be completely seduced by.
A considerable part of what makes Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre work so well is the casting, especially with Mia Wasikowska in the titular role. Wasikowska is the right age to play Jane and embodies the degree in which Jane is physically a young woman but emotionally an older soul. She brings to the part both a sympathetic vulnerability and a determined stoicism that she needs to protect herself after an affectionless childhood and a disciplined adolescence. Jane is humble and withdrawn, yet as the film progresses Wasikowska’s performance hints at her frustrations and yearning for something more. Her battle of wits with the mysterious and powerful Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender) generates a subtle sexual tension as the two damaged souls size each other up with the potential for something more enticingly suggested.
Much of the film expressively conveys Jane’s emotional state and in that regard Fukunaga enhances the Gothic elements of the story where the setting takes on various characteristics to express Jane’s mental and emotional state. Passionate outbursts arrive with thunderous storms, love is delivered in sun-drenched spring mornings and windswept desolate moors are perfect for anguish and despair. And at the centre of it all is Thornfield manor with its dark secrets and mysteries.
Despite the abundance of film style that’s used to express Jane’s emotional state, the film never feels overtly melodramatic due to Fukunaga’s modern visual style. The camera is often positioned from behind Jane’s head, an increasingly common technique to situate the audience right behind the character to see the world as they see it, but in a slightly detached observational way to convey Jane’s guardedness. A real pleasure from the film is watching her and Rochester lower their defences to deliver lots of wonderfully tormented romantic dialogue.
This new adaptation truly announces Wasikowska’s arrival as an actor of significant talent. Fassbender also continues his incredibly good run and he is fast becoming one of his generation’s most versatile performers. Jane Eyre is only Fukunaga’s second feature film and it establishes him as a director worth following. The composition of light and colour in every shot that he achieves with cinematographer Adriano Goldman conveys a remarkable cinematic eye. Far from being a worthy and stodgy literary adaptation, Jane Eyre is a passionate and romantic love story that feels as fresh as it must have done when Brontë originally wrote it.