Adapting classic literature for the screen is never an easy endeavor. Unlike the graphic novel, a fairly recent genre that has launched a myriad of film adaptations, taking on a "classic" offers a host of challenges for filmmakers. The most obvious issue is that certain books have been beloved for centuries, which causes expectations for readers who have latched onto a particular story that they hold dear to their hearts. Mess up a treasured novel and woe to the cinematic butchers who destroyed a masterpiece.
Jane Eyre, a novel published by English writer Charlotte Bronte, is no stranger to adaptation. Since its original publication in 1847, its story has been told through musicals, operas, television productions, on the theatrical stage and even through ballet. There have been numerous films, ranging from early Hollywood silents to a 1996 version starring William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Anna Paquin. If you think the story of Jane Eyre is worn out with all these versions in existence, you would be wrong. The newest Jane Eyre is spellbindingly flawless and is perhaps the best interpretation of classic literature to make it to the screen since Merchant Ivory was in its zenith in the '80s and '90s.
The film opens on a dark, foggy, wet, windswept day as a crying, distraught woman is wandering through empty, desolate terrain. A storm is brewing in the distance and will be upon her quick, but this woman is battling her own internal emotional disturbance as she stumbles through the fields whilst the rain begins to pour down from the black sky without mercy. Taken in by kind strangers, delusions cause the still unnamed woman (it's "Jane Eyre") to flash back to previous key moments in her life.
We witness her as a young child being shuttled off to an austere boarding school by an unloving, abusive aunt. The school is a joyless, frightening place full of stern, ready-to-discipline adults with messages of a wrathful God punishing sinners. After a few more jumps back and forth in time, the movie settles into its main story line of Jane becoming a governess and forming a relationship with her employer Edward Rochester. It's impossible to forget the vivid opening of Jane lost in the misty, barren landscape, and the mystery surrounding how Jane got to that desperate point will be slowly revealed.
A major component of director Cary Joji Fukunaga's version of Jane Eyre might turn off audience members expecting a strict, chapter-by-chapter adaptation of Bronte's novel. Scriptwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) and Fukunaga chose to tell the story in non-linear fashion, bouncing from Jane as she experienced or remembered important moments. I loved this choice, as it created a level of unexpected suspense and added layers that a straightforward telling might not have had. Tied to the non-linear tension is how full of life the film is despite all the gloomy, doomed romance and underpinning social elements that continuously creep into the midst of conversations. Had Jane Eyre been without the non-linear framework, it would have lacked the propulsive energy of the story as it moved toward its conclusion.
It certainly doesn't hurt Jane Eyre's chances that the two leads are about to become full blown movie stars [if they aren't that already]. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank) are absolutely perfect as Jane and Edward. The Australian Wasikowska, who resembles a teenage Gwyneth Paltrow, gives a mesmerizing, haunting performance that is equal parts control and raw, youthful abandon. Impressive. Nearly as good is the Irish Fassbender, playing the flawed, intense estate owner who becomes bewitched by the charms of the blunt conversationalist despite her lack of money or title. Having two leads this good takes already strong material and elevates it to a higher level.
Jane Eyre is sophisticated and first-rate across the board. An ensemble cast is always important, and every role was right on the mark -- from small (Simon McBurney blew me away as the oppressive schoolmaster despite having only a few lines) to large (Judi Dench does no wrong. Ever.). The score is chillingly beautiful and matches the sense of foreboding in the story. Like other successful period pictures, Jane Eyre has wonderful production design of sets, costumes and locations that fit the story. This is such a thoughtful and well-conceived movie that those elements are just as terrific as everything else.
Jane Eyre is the second feature film from the 33-year-old Fukunaga who helmed the powerful, gripping Sin Nombre in 2009. As much as I was impressed by Fukunaga's first film, seeing something as disparate as Jane Eyre with his gutsy choice to go non-linear is cause for celebration. He is as adept at exploring the tumultuous yearnings of a teenage girl in gothic, eighteenth century England as he was in telling the story of Mexicans desperately trying to make it to a better life in 21st-century America. Folks, that's talent. Fukunaga is a tremendously promising young director to watch for in the future.
It's really kind of simple -- the reason that Bronte's tale has captivated readers for a 164 years is that it is an amazing story. It is always easy to mess up translating page to screen, but director Cary Joji Fukunaga's brave take on Jane Eyre is a romantic, invigorating, brooding, gripping look at the lovelorn character of Jane Eyre. So stellar is Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, his version might be the definitive film adaptation, at least until someone else comes along to try again in a decade or two.
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