Review: ‘Jane Eyre’
Friday, March 4th, 2011 | By Misa Shikuma
Aided by rising stars Mia Wasikowska as the title character opposite Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester, director (and Oakland native) Cary Fukunaga breathes new life into Charlotte Brontë’s coming-of-age classic “Jane Eyre.” Beautifully shot on location in northern England with a well-rounded cast that includes Judi Dench and Jamie Bell, the film occasionally falters over a screenplay that doesn’t quite do the novel justice.
We begin somewhere in the middle of Jane Eyre’s tale, following her as she runs away from an as-of-yet undisclosed place and wanders helplessly through the gloomy, English countryside before being taken in by the devout St. John Rivers (Bell). As her childhood and adolescence unfold through flashbacks, it becomes clear that Jane’s life consists of a series of unfortunate events, including a spiteful aunt (Sally Hawkins) and the death of her only friend at boarding school. Upon coming of age, Jane sets out to become a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she befriends the elitist but well-meaning housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) and encounters the estate’s master, the enigmatic Mr. Rochester. Seeing through her austere exterior, Rochester is drawn to Jane’s inner strength, and the two strike up an unlikely rapport that gradually escalates into romance. But just when it seems Jane may finally achieve happiness for the first time, ghosts from Rochester’s past resurface, threatening the well-being of both her and Rochester.
Fassbender, still relatively unknown to American audiences despite growing popularity in his native Europe, captures the volatility and charm of a good man who has gradually been worn down by the secrets he is forced to keep. His intensity is matched by Wasikowska’s nuanced performance as an alternately passive and poised young woman who remains undaunted despite the misfortunes that continually beset her. Their chemistry, as Rochester and Jane, is organic; the sexual tension between them, almost tangible.
Visually, Fukunaga captures the novel’s Gothic character with rich detail and expert cinematography. By day, Thornfield’s panoramic windows reveal the gorgeous, sprawling grounds outside and the manor’s exquisite furnishings that denote Rochester’s social standing. At night, however, all is cast into darkness, suspense lurking in the shadows beyond the tenuous glow of the candles that guide the characters through the labyrinthine house.
Unfortunately, not even a combination of great acting and gripping mis-en-scene is enough to compensate for the uneven script, which in this case falls to screenwriter Moira Buffini. While “Jane Eyre” starts off strong, injecting just enough humor to make the esoteric language appeal to modern viewers, things start to lose steam as the plot progresses. The exchanges between Jane and Rochester, once rife with flirtation, become lackluster, and the movie begins to drag. Eventually, it regains its footing, but doesn’t manage to end on as high a note as it began.
The bottom line: “Jane Eyre” noobs like me may be satisfied (I forwent the book in high school in favor of the SparkNotes edition), but die-hard fans are likely to be left hanging. (I brought along a more accomplished reader who enjoyed it, but was bothered by deviations from the book). Even when everything else is well-executed, the writing just isn’t up to par, which is a great shame, given the material’s literary heritage.