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David Thomson on Films: ‘Jane Eyre’

The best, most alive movie version of the Bronte novel I have ever seen.

Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre opened over a month ago, but it’s staying in theaters and word-of-mouth is building. As well it might. There have been too many film adaptations of the Charlotte Bronte novel (published in 1847), and some of us have wearied of keeping up with them all. So I neglected the picture when it opened, but was stirred into action by my wife, Lucy Gray, who told me it was wonderful. She was right—she usually is. This is the best version of Jane Eyre I have ever seen, and if you have dismal memories of Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (1943), or William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg (1996), you should immediately track this version down on a big screen.

But it’s not enough to say only that this is the best translation of a classic. More important, it’s a modern movie about a fraudulent man and an honest woman—types that persist. As such, its virtues start in the script by Moira Buffini (she did Tamara Drewe for Stephen Frears). Her work is frequently faithful to Bronte in the matter of dialogue—edited down yet retaining the drama of the novel and the essence of its language—but it has a movie-like opening with Jane’s desperate departure from Mr. Rochester after their aborted marriage. Thereafter, it shows her being rescued by the Rivers family and passes quickly over her grim childhood. This is sensible, for the movie means to concentrate on the bond between the neurotic Rochester and the sane Miss Eyre. It is a story of reason, kindness, and character overcoming madness and class attitudes. The novel was a landmark in nineteenth-century feminism, but it is legitimate to recognize that, over 160 years later, the audience wants to see the battle of two uncommon minds.

Mr. Rochester, let’s face it, is an unwholesome Byronic hero (that is the generous label pinned on him in literary history). He is a self-pitying idiot who uses his misfortune at being compelled to marry a mad woman (a lost soul who would be redeemed in 1966 by Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea) as an excuse for wretched behavior. This has promoted a sexual adventuring that has Adele as a “ward” (or an unacknowledged and neglected daughter), and which is ready to make Jane the unwitting partner in a demented, bigamous marriage—or retain her as a mistress who is expected to be amenable because she is poorer than he is.

Michael Fassbender’s Rochester lets these indulgent faults stare from his handsome but depressed face. His actions are capricious and cruel—as when he flirts with Blanche Ingram in front of Jane (only to admit that he finds Miss Ingram a nonentity). His mad wife is still beautiful and vibrantly sexual (delivered in one scene by Valentina Cervi)—as if they might have a relationship still. Yet we view the wreck of a man through Jane’s eyes and her ability to penetrate his ruined nobleman pose. There are lengthy dialogues between the couple—done in intense, cross-cut close-ups—that show how naturally film can explore conversation and its undertones.

Fassbender seems pushed toward gravity and self-discovery by his very fresh Jane—the Polish-sounding Mia Wasikowska, who was actually born and raised in Australia. She had the misfortune last year to play the lead in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and she had a smaller role in The Kids Are All Right. She is a fine actress, and prettier most of the time than she allows herself to be as Jane. It’s necessary that Jane’s romanticism rests in her voice and her mind—she is one of the great decision-making heroines in English literature, a model of moral intelligence, though still a susceptible young woman. The film lets us feel how physically attracted to Rochester she is; so it requires an effort to establish her higher reliance on intelligence and virtue. It’s easy these days, in talking about movies, to ignore or mock such things. Thus Jane Eyre has always been poised to slip into novelette. Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier and then Alfred Hitchcock, is the prime example of that shift—and very entertaining. But Bronte meant to tell a story about principled independence without piety, and the film lets us know how thoroughly Rochester has been educated and tamed. His eventual blindness is the one thing in novel and film that seems underlined (or Freudian).

The conclusion (the exit of the mad wife) is unduly convenient in the book. The film is brave enough to deny itself that great fire and its attendant action—it is simply an event described by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (played with tact by Judi Dench—who seems to know this film is a worthwhile venture).

There’s a lot more to be added, notably the landscape. The Brontes lived in Yorkshire and reveled in the emotional atmosphere of its moors. This film was made in the neighboring county of Derbyshire, which serves very well. Vistas of dark moorland—sometimes with snow—carry Jane’s escape into spiritual desolation and wilderness. These exteriors are well shot, by Adriano Goldman, though, in the more domestic scenes, he has a taste for blurring the light and the focus that can be fussy and obtrusive.

As for Cary Fukunaga, there is much to be hoped for. His only previous feature, the fine Mexican film Sin Nombre, could hardly be more different. He is Californian (of Japanese and Swedish descent) and still in his thirties. This Jane Eyre was backed by the BBC and it has the merits of decor and costume that one might expect—many of the clothes are emotionally emblematic. But give the director the credit for choosing the actors and for filming them so directly in talk and watching each other that the love story and its obstacles (most of which have to do with wayward romanticism) are deeply touching. Yes, it’s Charlotte Bronte’s novel, done with respect and flair. But it’s a movie that seems to be happening now.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.