by Mel Valentin
Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance, "Jane Eyre," first published in 1847 and never out of print, has been adapted for the big screen 18 times (dating back to 1910) and another nine times for television broadcast. "Jane Eyre" has been also adapted for the stage multiple times and served as the inspiration for countless writers over more than a century and a half. Of the big-screen adaptations, Robert Stevenson’s 1943 adaptation starring Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as the title character is considered among the finest adaptations of 19th-century literature. Each new adaptation has to answer a single, yet ultimately difficult question: why? Why a new adaptation? The latest, but by no means last, adaptation of "Jane Eyre," directed by Cary Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre") from Moira Buffini ‘s screenplay ("Tamara Drewe," "The Enlightenment"), finds that answer in the marriage of frequently stunning visuals and nuanced, shaded performances from a talented cast.Fukunaga’s adaptation opens with a young, distraught woman (Mia Wasikowska), flees a 19th-century country manor, Thornfield Hall. What we’re seeing, however, isn’t the first scene in the narrative, time wise, but a scene that appears later chronologically. The scene sets up a flashback structure not present in Bronte’s novel. It helps to create and heighten suspense even for moviegoers intimately familiar with Bronte’s novel or earlier adaptations. That scene takes Jane Eyre to her most desperate, hopeless moment, alone, bereft, caught in a rainstorm. She finds herself at the door of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), a Christian minister who takes Jane in and, with his sisters, Diana (Holliday Grainger) and Mary (Tamzin Merchant), nurses her back to physical and emotional health.
"A director's promise fulfiilled, a (near) definitive adaptation made."
Jane’s recuperation allows Fukunaga to shade in Jane’s experience, her “tale of woe,” as her tormentor, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) mockingly refers to Jane’s impoverished upbringing. Brief flashbacks detail Jane’s early mistreatment at the hands of a cold, distant aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), at Gateshead and Jane’s subsequent banishment to Lowood School, an all-girls boarding school, where the headmaster, headmistress, both authoritarians, and their adult employees attempt to break Jane’s independent spirit through a variety of punishments. At eighteen, Jane leaves the school for the outside world, employment as a governess to Rochester’s French-born ward, Adele Varens (Romy Settbon Moore), at Rochester’s ancestral home, Thornfield Hall.
Jane doesn’t meet Rochester immediately. He’s away on business. She learns about Rochester from Mrs. Fairfax (Judy Dench), Rochester’s distant relative and his housekeeper. Jane’s first, inadvertent meeting with Rochester on a road while he’s on horseback neatly sets up one strand of Bronte’s novel: class conflict, the high-born Rochester on his horse versus the presumably low-born Jane on foot. Jane, however, literally knocks Rochester off his feet, bringing him down, however temporarily, to his level. What follows is a difficult, combative courtship constrained by social convention, an aristocratic rival, Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots), for Rochester’s affections (and fortune), and a secret in Rochester’s past that threatens to permanently ruin any future with Jane.
Despite the usual abridgements and compressions associated with adapting a novel to the big screen (as opposed to the more leisurely demand of, say, a television mini-series), Jane Eyre succeeds on practically every level, as a respectful adaptation of the source material, as a critique of Victorian society and gender roles limited by social convention and class, and as a gothic romance with supernatural undertones, impressively realized by Fukunaga, his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, and his production designer, Will Hughes-Jones (among many others). The decision to use real locations, often grey and wintry, apt reflections of characters and their inner lives, along with the occasional handheld camera (in the opening scene, for example), sets Fukunaga’s adaptation, if not above earlier adaptations, then certainly their equals.Fukunaga, of course, benefited hugely from a talented cast, from the major speaking roles to the smallest, incidental roles. Mia Wasikowska fulfills the promise shown in earlier roles (e.g., "The Kids Are All Right," "Alice in Wonderland," "In Treatment"). Fukunaga leaned heavily on Wasikowska’s ability to express Jane Eyre’s complex inner life through close-ups and she never falters. If you’ve seen "Hunger," "Inglorious Basterds," or "Fish Tank," Michael Fassbender’s layered performance as Rochester won’t come as a surprise. If you haven’t seen those films, his performance will (for fans of the superhero genre, Fassbender’s set to play Magneto in "X-Men: First Class," due this summer). Jamie Bell, in a small, potentially thankless role as St. John Rivers, makes his character far more appealing and, thus, less villainous, than previous iterations.
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originally posted: 03/18/11 19:18:24