Monday, May 9, 2011

Jane Eyre, the movie

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the latest Jane Eyre movie adaptation, starring Mia Wasikowska in the title role. I knew going in that my love for the novel would likely prompt me to be critical, and sure enough, all throughout the film, I was making a mental checklist of everything in the novel that the film left out.

Overall, however, this one is nonetheless well-acted and beautifully done. Instead of striving for accurate representations of the events of the novel, it strives to capture its tone, essence and atmosphere, by way of haunting cinematography and the evocative piano score, composed by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.

Charlotte Brontë’s novel was the semi-autobiographical story of the orphaned Jane Eyre, who survives a bleak childhood to become a governess at the house of the cold and acerbic Mr. Rochester. Jane is a passionate yet dignified individual who struggles with the class and gender roles of the era and her own sense of integrity versus her growing love for Mr. Rochester.

I must admit I had my doubts when I heard that Mia Wasikowska was cast as Jane. Jane is described in the novel as being “poor, obscure, plain and little;” in other words, an utterly ordinary and relatable character whose strengths lie in her personality rather than her appearance. My impression of Wasikowska was that she was too beautiful to play my beloved Jane, but on the contrary, Jane was placed in good hands. Through means of makeup and wardrobe, Wasikowska displays a modest, unadorned appearance, while her eyes subtly hint at the energy and fervor lying beneath the surface of pale skin, pinned hair and humble governess clothing.

Although Mr. Rochester is described as being a homely man in his late 30s to early 40s, most film versions I have seen have cast an attractive younger actor in the role—in this case, Michael Fassbender—and the reason is understandable. Few films would buck time constraints to include Brontë’s pages upon pages of dialogue between Jane and Rochester that illustrates the depth of their connection; movie audiences would wonder just what it is that Jane sees in this unpleasant, unattractive man. Despite these cutbacks in their meaningful interaction, the love story is acted out well enough to please both romantic movie-goers and fans of the novel, with Fassbender effectively portraying Rochester’s growing passion for Jane, while Wasikowska plays on the reticence of Jane with quiet dignity and understated devotion to the man who is her employer and superior as well as her love interest.

Indeed, Jane Eyre is a film that relies less on dialogue and more on atmosphere as a means of storytelling. The cinematography successfully captures the gothic ambiance of the novel, at times with overcast weather and washed-out colors, other times with sweeping mountainous landscapes with castles and farmhouses in the distance. One especially effective scene is Jane’s hike through forested terrain, where she meets a mysterious stranger on a black horse who turns out to be Mr. Rochester. The setting is reminiscent of just about every film adaptation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow.

While Brontë sought to connect with her audience on an intellectual level, director Cary Fukunaga’s intentions clearly lie on a visceral level, and despite the liberties taken with the story, the film succeeds where it counts. It may have left out key elements of the novel—scenes, characters, dialogue, subplots—but in a sense, it was necessary in order to get to the heart of the matter, without being bogged down by scenes that would slow the story down. Films and novels are certainly different crafts, and while I’ll always love Brontë’s novel more, I consider this an acceptable adaptation and an exceptionally well-done piece of work.


  1. I liked the cast and thought a lot of the individual scenes were good, but it felt chopped up to me.