Amidst of the hectic glow of LFF I haven’t had a chance to cover Jane Eyre yet, so Nathanael Smith has stepped in and taken a look at Cary Fukunaga’s interpretation of the classic tale
The gothic novel is, more than many a literary genre, predisposed towards cinematic adaptation. Several tropes from the writing of the era – brooding heroes, passionate romances, dramatic settings often in isolated buildings – lend themselves to big screen drama. It is odd, therefore, that the stories from the period (save one or two notable exceptions) are often adapted into dry, lifeless cinema. Cary Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre, seeks to rectify this, embracing all the elements that make the novel so beloved and creating something truly cinematic from it.
Fukunaga uses a variety of tools that modern film making has to offer to establish an oppressive, melodramatic atmosphere. The film opens with Jane stumbling across a truly Brontëan misty moor, the weather frequently playing a role in setting the tone of a scene throughout the film. Everything here adds to the drama, with firelight illuminating faces to create the impression of a head floating in darkness, whilst the sound design excels in making the audience uneasy with haunting laughter and the mere creak of chair. This is grim, northern Victorian Britain, and the director has no time for easy beauty: the moments of romantic idyll here are hard earned, and all the more precious for it.
One of the key recurring elements of a good gothic story is a Byronic hero, the kind of man that is riddled with flaws, yet in a way that makes him even more appealing. Smouldering his way onto the screen with a surliness that fully befits Rochester, Michael Fassbender is brilliant as the unpredictable and dark master of Thornfield Hall. He is perhaps too good looking for Rochester, a man described as having unconventional features. He overcomes this with a layered performance in which the mean exterior is peeled back to reveal the tender heartedness that makes him such an enduring character. As he sits with the flickering firelight creating shadows in the crags of his features, and a single shift in his facial expression denotes the slightest change in mood, Fassbender is forgotten and it is Rochester who dominates the screen.
Neither the novel nor the film, however, is called Mr. Rochester, and Mia Wasikowska’s Jane owns the film; a beautiful realisation of one of literature’s best loved heroines. As with the book, there is a wonderfully etched tension between the restraint that society forces on her, and the passion that burns beneath. This is reflected even in Jane’s accent: through her schooling she was taught ‘proper English’, but at times of heightened emotion her northern dialect comes to the fore. When Jane finally says what she thinks, in one of the films most memorable scenes beneath a tree in springtime, Wasikowska exudes a quiet power, not relying on histrionics but underplaying it in a way that feels far more authentic but no less heart wrenching.
One of the many reasons literature from the Victorian gothic period is so popular is that there is a large emphasis on telling a good story. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (desperately in need of a good adaptation), Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and even writing as late as Edgar Allan Poe all focus on telling a good story, and Jane Eyre, the tale of a girl brought up in hardship who ultimately wins the day, is no different. And crucially Fukunaga understands the power of story, using film as a tool for telling it in a new way. Jane is frequently kept in shallow focus, evoking the alienation she feels that comes across so clearly in writing, whilst the wide angle and tracking shots give it a classic cinematic feel.
If there is one gripe, it’s that this adaptation rather skimps on a certain sub plot about what is hiding in the attic, but in pushing the romance to the fore, Fukunaga, Fassbender and Wasikowska have created a Jane Eyre that has a resounding heartbeat to it. Crucially, they have created a powerful work of cinema.
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