JANE EYRE. Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench. Rated M (Mature themes). 120 minutes.
It is difficult to make great films from great books. Luchino Visconte’s The Leopard, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Sally Potter’s Orlando are all exceptions. There are others, of course. But some films simply defy attempts to make them live on the big screen with the same resonance and power that they have on the page.
Since 1910, there have been many attempts to bring Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to the big screen. The best remembered is Hollywood’s 1944 film, which succeeded almost solely because of its charismatic pairing of Orson Wells and Joan Fontaine as Rochester and Jane. Closer to contemporary sensibilities is Franco Zeffirelli’s dour but atmospheric 1996 version, which starred Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt.
But now there is an adaptation of Jane Eyre by newcomer Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), which seriously challenges the view that the best versions of classics by such writers as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Dickens and Mrs Gaskell, are those made as miniseries for the BBC.
The most satisfying aspect of Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is that it is truly cinematic, which is to say that it dispenses with reliance on the spoken word, and depends instead on the power of pictures.
Thus the tale of Jane Eyre’s journey from abused orphan to passionate, morally upright young woman in love with a married, angst-ridden man, turns its back on conventional chronology and the novel’s hallmark first-person narration, and begins with a long, commanding sequence that shows Jane (Mia Wasikowska) stumbling grief-stricken through the Yorkshire Moors, in flight from the Thornfield Hall and its unhappy master, Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
Moira Buffini’s lean, clever script moves effortlessly backwards and forwards in time to tell Jane’s story convincingly, with power and emotional realism, despite its ever present Gothic elements.
Against the primal beauty of the moors, and the dominance of nature in a seemingly depopulated world, Fukunaga skilfully juxtaposes the malice and cruelty endured by Jane as a child at Gateshead, where she is emotionally and physically abused by her aunt (Sally Hawkins) and cousins, and at Lowood School for Girls, run by the vicious and despicable Mr Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney).
Despite this loveless childhood, Jane grows into the passionate, loving, life-affirming proto-feminist that has inspired generations of readers since the novel was first published. And in much the same way that Nastassja Kinski marked as her own the role of Tess in Roman Polanski’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids are Alright) is set to be remembered for her nuanced, low key but quite masterful performance as Jane.
Less successful perhaps is Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, 300) as Rochester. His emotional range from rough, harsh, detached, troubled and needy is less assured. But this is largely subsumed by Adriano Goldman’s rich and evocative cinematography, and Kukunaga’s sure, idiosyncratic direction which results in compelling performances from the inimitable Judi Dench as Mrs Fairfax, Jamie Bell (Billy Eliot, The Eagle) as St John Rivers, and Sally Hawkins as Jane’s aunt Sally Reed.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 11th August 2011.