Film Review: Jane Eyre (2011)

Imagine your most confusing dream. You think you're awake but you can never be sure of what you're seeing because it's just slightly off from what you'd expect. By the time you realize the truth of your situation, your dream has transformed into a horrific nightmare. Director Cary Fukunaga's version of Charlotte Bronte's classic Gothic novel Jane Eyre is best described as dream-like. A gray haze hangs over even the brightest scenes, casting poor Jane's world in a constant state of gloom. If the haze disappears, something even worse is coming around the corner. The visual choice is perfect to set the tone of unease and distrust that permeates Bronte's work.

Screenwriter Moira Buffini tackles the weighty tome with style and grace. The difficulty in adapting Jane Eyre is the sheer size and scope of the novel. Characters with one line in the beginning of the novel wind up being the key to a subplot that wraps up two hundred pages later. Buffini's strategy of setting the majority of the film as a flashback at St. John River's estate after Jane flees Rochester's mansion is perfect. This lets the story be told in an unobtrusive way. It doesn't matter that large sections of the novel are cut out for the film because the film sells itself as Jane's memory of what happened while she worked for Rochester.

Fukunaga uses Buffini's screenplay as a strong jumping off point for bold decisions. Whispers fill the soundtrack whenever Jane begins to doubt her life's course. Memories snap into her mind like the strike of a switch against a young student's neck. Most impressive of all, Fukunaga sells the integral moments of violence--such as young Jane having her head smashed into a doorknob--with a stark brutality that captures the tone of Charlotte Bronte's novel better than any other adaptation I've seen. The choices aren't manipulative or conniving; they feel real to the story of Jane Eyre.

Rising star Mia Wasikowska stars as Jane Eyre. Her portrayal is of an astute and gifted young woman trying her hardest to improve her stock in life. She is slow to trust, love, or embrace anyone beyond the minimal demands of her role as a Governess. Wasikowska's Jane Eyre is reserved, but not cold, and sharp-tongued, but never bitter. It is a mannered performance that eschews histrionics for far more grounded choices.

Michael Fassbender as her mysterious employer Rochester is a force to be reckoned with. He reflects Wasikowska's choices with more strength than her character would be allowed to show. Where Wasikowska can only lock her eyes on Fassbender's and use her words, Fassbender can stare right back at her, raise his voice, and puff out his chest. He is the magnifying mirror of Jane's emotions. Fassbender plays Rochester's own emotional presence as dodgy and secretive, which only improves the reveal of the great secret of the story.

It is unfair to single out just Wasikowska and Fassbender for the entire ensemble cast is great. Judi Dench is a believable confidant for poor Jane as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax. An unrecognizable Sally Hawkins steals her two big scenes without overacting as Jane's put upon guardian Mrs. Reed. Jamie Bell is strong, kind, and assured as Jane's savior St. John Rivers. Even newcomer Romy Settbon Moore as Jane's French pupil Adele is engaging and believable in her youthful energy and need for attention.

If you like the novel, you'll love this version of Jane Eyre. Those who haven't read the novel will find much to enjoy as well. It's a smart, well-produced tale that never overplays its hand, even when excess would be the most obvious choice.

Rating: 8/10

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