Jane Eyre Dir. Cary Fukunaga

[Focus Features; 2011]

Styles: literary adaptations
Others: Jane Eyre, The Wings of the Dove, The Remains of the Day

As with any adaptation of a classic, this is the truncation of a masterpiece: an iffy endeavor that, given the inextricable bond between books and movies, was worth the attempt, but, in this case, not the product. Director Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre won’t please any more than the most cursory of the book’s readers, the people who’ve read the novel for its love story and its dark, romantic plot but missed the powerful, conflicted character that novelist Charlotte Brontë made of Jane. Not that the film has any obligation to please the book’s most die-hard fans — all it really has to do is create a compelling enough Jane for two hours of screen time. And while this Jane Eyre takes one major diversion from the novel — it sticks a large part of the book’s third act into its opening sequence and thereby frames the story in retrospect — the rest of this movie is a hasty attempt to stick closely to its source.

Jane Eyre is essentially about a woman’s strenuous testing of her love for a man: the conflict she feels between the two ways her nature draws her — towards duty to herself and towards love for the man — and how the marriage of these directions is incredibly difficult. The novel builds to this conflict by continually characterizing Jane as a person who has been forced to put every action to the test. As a girl, Jane is unloved by her adopted family and branded a liar for having the self-respect to point it out. She’s sent to a boarding school where for eight years she is told that her strong nature and love for life are evil. Through a process that forms her as a woman, she manages to square the teachings of the school with her natural passions and at 18 heads off to a job at Thornfield Hall to teach a little French girl the ways of the English. Here she meets gruff, unbelievably wealthy Edward Rochester, who is taken with her intelligence from the get-go. When Rochester confesses his love to her, she willingly agrees to marry him, but when things go wrong, she is forced to make the decision that every trial in her life has been seemingly preparing her for.

The movie takes no pains to reach for anything greater than a filmed account of the story. It moves quickly over the points it’s less interested in (Jane’s conflict), then slows down to accentuate the love story with Rochester. Presumably, these are the parts of the story that were deemed most palatable to paying audiences. Given that it’s attempting to be a crowd pleaser, it’s helpful that the scenes between Jane and Rochester are the best in the movie. The photography and lighting, particularly the candlelit interiors, have an oil-on-canvas beauty that feels subtly unnatural and gives the faces of Mia Wasikowska (Jane) and Michael Fassbender (Rochester) classical, epic presence. These actors are tremendously talented, too. They hint at the greater emotions that the book takes pains to elucidate. Since Wasikowska’s face is all we’re given to glean the inner struggle of Jane, it’s nice that her face is given the attention it deserves.

Once the love has been confessed, once Jane is forced into her great conflict, the film heads back into rushed mode and speeds through to the end. With all of its attributes (the acting, its aesthetics) and the fact that its budget (lavish sets, sweeping landscapes, period detail galore) wasn’t meager, it’s a cheat to have the final third — in which Jane’s character is actually tested — go by in a flash so quick its scenes and dialogue become silly. It’s tempting to think Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) was fighting for as much of Jane Eyre as he could, in between bouts with a studio perhaps forcing him to shrink the novel into palatability. But Fukunaga may actually have been more interested in the dark interiors, the actor’s faces, the English countryside — there isn’t a lot of directorial stamp here to suggest otherwise.

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