Review: Jane Eyre (2011)

Director: Cary Fukunaga

****

Another version of Jane Eyre? Oh, alright. Between film, radio and television there are tens of takes on Charlotte Brontë’s novel (a silent version from 1910 is the earliest known), yet it always seems ripe for cinematic production. This may be because there is no definitive performance or definitive version of Jane Eyre in all the versions that have been made. Lawrence Olivier will always be Hamlet, and Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy, but no-one can lay claim to ‘being’ Jane. That said, Mia Wasikowska may put forth a claim to ‘being’ Jane with her performance in this bracing and charming latest adaptation.

If we want someone or something to blame for all those annoying ‘will-he, won’t-he’ scenarios that are wont to crop up in romance (either comedic or tragic), one could do worse than to blame Brontë’s novel. Jane (Wasikowska) has had an unfortunate upbringing; orphaned, unloved by the aunt who takes her in (Sally Hawkins) and sent to a strict Christian school, Jane moves to Thornfield Hall to tutor Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), the young ward of Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Jane Eyre is at its best in the scenes between Jane and the most famous cad in all of literature. Waskiowska brings her natural grace to the innocent but headstrong Jane, whilst Fassbender brings the combination of smoulder and anger he has honed to perfection. An excellent supporting cast add colour, including Hawkins, Jamie Bell (as St. John Rivers) and Judi Dench (in a surprisingly subservient role as Mrs. Fairfax). As events roll on, and things go from good to bad to worse (as these costume dramas usually do), the viewer is ever drawn back to Wasikowska’s porcelain face. Alice In Wonderland just required her to stand around whilst the background decor did the talking; here, she makes a heartfelt impact as the combination of her morality and Rochester’s actions forbid her from love.

Jane Eyre is directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose last film, the excellent-but-very-different Sin Nombre, doesn’t make him a likely choice for this gig. Yet, the grim beauty of the plains of northern England and frequently sombre tone show him to be a canny choice. As period pieces go, Jane Eyre is gritty. The emotions are still relatively toned down, but the trials and tribulations of Jane’s past (her ‘tale of woe’, as Rochester puts it) are not glossed over. Sudden frights and bloodshed remind us that Victorian passion needn’t be buttoned down. OK, so the frocks and bodices are still in place, and may not win any of the period-averse over, but fans will rejoice at this most enthusiastic of adaptations, the finest period romance since Keira Knightley perfected Lizzy Bennett. A definitive Jane Eyre? Perhaps, but it’s certainly a contender.

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