by HELEN GEIB
There’s an eternal debate in film reviewing circles over how much attention to pay to an adaptation’s merits as an adaptation; that is, as opposed to its merits as a standalone work. To a large extent, I find the debate moot because an adaptation by its nature exists in relation to its source. Like it or not, like the original or not, know anything of the original or not, an adaptation is an adaptation is an adaptation- not an original work.
The newest version of Charlotte Bronte’s famed Gothic romance Jane Eyre brings the point home. The novel is too big a title, its love story too much a fixture of popular culture to ignore. Even people who haven’t read the book will start off by acknowledging that very fact and those of us who have read it, can’t un-read it for purposes of writing a review. Although the collective gasp of surprise when Jane returned to Thornfield Hall made it clear that many in the audience know the story only in its broad outlines, there can surely be few for whom Jane Eyre exists in a vacuum.
And anyway, and perhaps most to the point as it concerns this review, looking at a film adaptation as an adaptation interests me. All the more so where the underlying work is the major source both of what works and of what doesn’t work alike. I hope this review will be worth reading whether you’ve read the book or not. You can let me know in the comments.
(For the record, I read Jane Eyre several years ago. I remember it clearly but not in detail. While I enjoyed and admired it in parts, my taste in nineteenth century English novels lies in other quarters.)
To start with what doesn’t work in the book, screenwriter Moira Buffini evidently shares my assessment of Jane’s sojourn with St. John after her flight from Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall. The deadly passage is broken into two parts to blunt its impact, with the first segment moved up to the start of the film. The picture of Jane’s present unhappiness is further punctuated by evocative flashbacks to her miserable childhood. Although the time constraints of a two hour film require drastic abridgement of this portion of the novel, we are treated to vivid sketches of her hardhearted aunt, wastrel-in-the-making cousin, and Helen, the idolized friend from the terrible school.
From there the film moves seamlessly into a long, unbroken flashback of Jane’s time at Thornfield before returning to present day. Between the conclusion of the essentially satisfying flashback and the truly lovely final scenes, the film- like the novel- founders on the shoals of St. John and the plot point of Jane’s rich benefactor uncle in the colonies. The latter is not only ridiculous, but superfluous; it won’t play to today’s audiences and should have been cut, fidelity be hanged. The former should have been either modernized completely or transferred faithfully from the page. The film’s muddled characterization is the inevitable result of trying to do both.
Where the film excels is in the central point: its Jane. Because Jane has no confidante and the script resists the easy out of voiceover narration, the characterization is mostly performance-based. Mia Wasikowska’s outstanding performance conveys Bronte’s heroine’s passionate nature, loneliness, affections, and resilience. The rest of the film, especially Cary Fukunaga’s direction and the cinematography, supports the performance by creating atmospheric surroundings for Jane. Thornfield Hall, the gardens and grounds, and the moors beyond change character with Jane’s emotions.
The film’s narrative can be broken out into three storylines. First is one of the standout strengths of the novel: Jane’s determined struggle to maintain an independent spirit despite her dependent situation. It is based in the characterization and Wasikowska’s performance and is realized quite well.
As to the love story, the filmmakers give Jane an attractive Mr. Rochester. He is given a tortured charisma by Michael Fassbender. The film’s Rochester is a more appealing personality than the book’s, but I approve the change because we need to see what Jane sees in him if we’re to want the couple to be together; particularly given Rochester’s necessarily limited screen time. On the negative side, the man is still saddled with some terribly unnatural dialogue.
Unexpectedly, the film does not seem much interested in the Gothic mystery for which the novel is famous. The household isn’t tense and on edge, Jane is oddly incurious, and the big reveal is notably anticlimactic. Dread is subordinated to romance.
In all, I enjoyed Jane Eyre quite a lot without ever quite being convinced that it’s more than skin deep. It is an effective mood piece with lovely cinematography and fine performances, and offers the reliable visual delights of the nineteenth century country-house England movie. And if that’s not a recognized sub-genre all its own, well, it should be.
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Director Cary Fukanaga’s prior film was the contemporary immigration drama Sin Nombre.