The opening frames of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre are startling. Charlotte Brontë’s novel, published in 1847, is a trenchant portrait of female entrapment, but this new adaptation immediately thrusts us outside. A fully grown Jane (Mia Wasikowska) hastens down a hill slope and roams around a vast, viridian moorland. Nearly thirty film and television adaptations have led us to expect to discover Jane as a juvenile prisoner of Gateshead, confined to the sliver of space between window and curtain while a flabby, menacing John Reed hunts her down. Instead, a bird’s-eye shot shows Jane at a crossroad, and subsequent close-ups divulge her crying, the thing she has most been at pains to suppress. The twenty-first-century Jane Eyre is less a victim of cages and cruelties than she is cosmically alone.
To know Brontë’s novel is to recognise the ruthless truncation involved in adapting it for the silver screen. Even so, this is an uncommonly depopulated Jane Eyre. Excepting St John Rivers and his sisters, who are given their fullest exploration in a feature film here, Bessie, Mr Lloyd, Mr Brocklehurst, Miss Scatcherd, Miss Temple, Helen Burns, even ‘that living enigma, that mystery of mysteries’, Grace Poole, appear transitorily, inconsequently, or not at all. Jane’s aggressors are defanged: Simon McBurney’s Brocklehurst, for example, has little of the pomposity or the tyranny of previous incarnations. Indeed, Lowood school’s abuses and privations appear to be a by-product of his bumbling, rather than sanctimonious, zeal. The milk of human kindness that trickles Jane’s way now and then through female subordinates has dried up, too.
The reason behind the conspicuous inattention to Jane’s intense and heartfelt, if curtailed, connections with other women is clear: Rochester (Michael Fassbender) must be the first and only person to take an interest in this isolated Jane. Fukunaga’s filmis unambiguously a love story. It trims the feminism from the Romantic bones of Brontë’s novel. Jane is allowed a single, brief protest against the circumscription of women’s lives, but the speech is delivered from a window through which she has hoped in vain to catch a glimpse of the departing Rochester. Here is one explanation for the decision to begin with Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall: though she endures orphanhood, corporal punishment, and the ignominies of life as a ‘paid subordinate’, the greatest tragedy to befall her is a broken heart. But there is another explanation: we revisit the sufferings at Gateshead and Lowood in shrunken flashbacks – Helen’s death has none of the pathos of previous versions, for example – because we are trusted to fill in the gaps.
Brontë employs two motifs to conjure Jane in her novel: birds and fairies. There is little of the ‘wild frantic bird that … rend[s] its own plumage in its desperation’ in Wasikowska’s Jane. She does not use food, smiles, tears, or social niceties as a form of passive resistance. There is no sense in which Bertha Mason – in this version, beautiful and sensuous, if dishevelled – is her mad twin. Jane’s reserve is not defiance but an otherworldliness that being a stranger to human company has inspired in her. Wasikowska’s Jane does indeed look like she just might be related to ‘the men in green’, as Rochester supposes. This is in no small part due to the ambers and ivories of Daniel Phillips’s hair and makeup design, and to Adriano Goldman’s cinematography-by-candlelight.
As for Fassbender, he offers us the most compelling Rochester since Orson Welles in Robert Stevenson’s 1945 film version. Recent adaptations have made the mistake of trying to make Brontë’s Byronic hero sympathetic: Toby Stephens’s Rochester in the 2006 BBC miniseries is too mirthful and dashing; and William Hurt’s Rochester in Zeffirelli’s film is too phlegmatic and pitiable. Fassbender’s Rochester is troubled, unceremonious, carnal, and, most importantly, conveys every impression that he is capable of cruelty. When Jane tells St John she will never love him we nod, understanding on a gut level why.
Fukunaga has said in interviews that he wanted to make a ‘spookier’ Jane Eyre. Spooky is too strong – more would have needed to be made of the strange women upstairs for that. But the film is genuinely atmospheric, thanks largely to its Northern England locations. Brontë’s novel is a tale of four houses; this film only really cares for one, and that is the real-life fortified medieval manor house, Haddon Hall. As Kronberg Castle has become Hamlet’s Elsinore, so Haddon Hall has become Rochester’s Thornfield over the years. Two of the three most recent adaptations feature it, but it has never looked more gloomy, isolated, or mysterious than this. Its use and reuse prompt a final question: why another Jane Eyre? Perhaps it is because only the reader has full access to this story in its complex fulsomeness; it will take another twenty-something films to capture its every facet.
Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, written by Moira Buffini. 120 minutes. Rated M. Released 11 August 2011.