Cary Fukunaga’s invigorating new version of Jane Eyre (2011), starring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, should appeal to Charlotte Brontë purists as well as attracting new fans. The film couldn’t be more different than Fukunaga’s award-winning debut Sin Nombre (2009), a violent thriller about a group of immigrants travelling through Mexico to the US, yet there are surprising similarities between the two stories.
Both of Fukunaga’s films tackle hardship and loss, involve characters who want to improve their lot and explore difficult familial relationships. Working against Brontë’s linear narrative, screenwriter Moria Buffini opens the film with Jane Eyre’s flight from Thornfield Hall. Her childhood and the beginning of her love affair with Edward Rochester are subsequently told through flashbacks.
Wisely, Buffini does not dwell too long on Jane’s early years, focusing instead on her defining moments. As a young orphan (played with great assurance by Amelia Clarkson) Jane is entrusted into the care of her cruel aunt Mrs. Reed (the excellent Sally Hawkins).
Aged ten, Jane is packed off to a charitable boarding school where the children are given an education in exchange for regular beatings and inexplicable cruelty. During a typhoid epidemic Jane’s best friend dies in her arms. After her schooling, Jane works there as a teacher for two years before deciding it’s time to move on. She accepts a position as governess at the grand Thornfield Hall, teaching Adèle, a young French girl and ward of the manor’s enigmatic owner, Mr. Rochester.
When Jane and Rochester meet, there is an immediate connection. Film audiences can enjoy an electric screen dynamic between Fassbender and Wasikowska. Fassbender’s Rochester tends towards the Byronic; craggy good looks, brooding and cynical, his gallantry is tainted by arrogance and frequent mood swings; at times his behaviour verges on the sadistic. But his love for Jane redeems him, just.
Despite being only 21, Wasikowska displays a remarkable maturity as an actress and effortlessly inhabits her character. Adriano Goldman’s frequent close-ups means that she has to work hard to express her character’s thoughts in her eyes or reveal Jane’s innermost hopes for love through the merest twitch of her lips or the hint of a smile. Jane’s beauty comes from within and Wasikowska allows it to creep up on you.
Jane Eyre is an intensely romantic story, and the Gothic undertones and elements of horror, have ensured its enduring appeal. Not surprisingly, since 1910 there have been 18 feature versions of Bronte’s classic (and ten TV adaptations).
Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre stands out on a number of levels. As well as boasting a star-studded cast – with the likes of Hawkins and Judi Dench playing cameo roles – Wasikowska perfectly captures Jane’s sexual and emotional awakening, a major theme in the book and one that is notoriously difficult to convey on film. Fukunaga also retains the darkness of Brontë’s original story through a careful combination of muted colour, harsh landscapes and eerily dark interiors. Veering towards Jane’s feminist, rather than romantic, side brings to the fore her desire for respect, equality and freedom and gives a contemporary resonance to the film.