Bottom Line: the new Jane Eyre film is the best movie adaptation yet, but has some serious flaws.
My wife loves Jane Eyre enough to have named a daughter Jane. It is my favorite English novel and saved our marriage from my Wuthering Heights view of romance.
This our twenty-fifth anniversary and we would not have made it to ten without Charlotte Bronte.
As a result, we have seen and own every version of Jane Eyre. The fullest and most satisfying is a dated (Eighties hair creeps about the edges like a hirsute horror in the attic) but romantic turn with Timothy Dalton as Rochester. It is too pretty, but it retains the central moral message of the book best.
Last night we saw the new adaptation by the BBC, which must have an entire Jane Eyre division, directed by rising talent Cary Joji Fukunaga. If we had watched this film instead of reading the book on a date decades ago, we would have loved it, but Jane would never have been born.
It entertains without challenging the viewer.
The acting is superior with Judy Dench stealing every scene in which she appears as Mrs. Fairfax. If Rochester were really wild, he would have noticed his housekeeper was the most interesting person in the house.
If Mia Wasikowska is too luminous for plain Jane, then this is a problem shared by all film adaptations. Evidently light makeup and a perfect complexion are what filmmakers think makes a woman plain. More problematic is her acting: solid, but still immature when compared to Dench’s range and her opposite Michael Fassbender (Rochester). He is too smoldering handsome for the part (Rochester is not hot), but oddly the women with me did not complain about this as they did about Jane’s looks.
The locations are, since the Brits always get this right, perfect. This is the best use of location in any adaptation. The lighting is particularly strong and never relies on gimmicks. At times the cuts are abrupt and the use of sound stagey: are we still amazed when we hear sudden sound coming from speakers behind us?
The script (Moira Buffin) takes risks, but is mostly excellent. Don’t go if you haven’t read the book, but then it would be, nearly, wicked to see any Jane Eyre film if you have not read the book. Assuming the audience knows the plot, this clever adaptation uses flashbacks to keep the story from lagging in the third act as it often does for contemporary viewers in less creative scripts. It also does the best job in making one of Bronte’s most misunderstood heroes, St. John Rivers, sympathetic.
The film fails, however, to convey Bronte’s Anglican and Tory perspective. Spirituality there is, but the Biblical references, and the book even ends with one, are mostly gone. Jane learns forgiveness, but we are left wondering where this impulse originates. Jesus as Savior and Redeemer is excised. though the less orthodox Bronte elements of her spirituality lurk in the plot.
Young Janes’s BFF, the Christian Helen keeps the spirit guides, but loses her New Testament quoting and Christ motivated love of the Christian God.
This film Jane is revolutionary, something Bronte was not. The noble theme of female emancipation is kept, all to the good, but the balance of the moral law with passion is nearly excised. One is left thinking Jane leaves Rochester because she is not yet quite liberated enough “to follow her heart.” Oddly, this tempts the viewer to think of her as enslaved to her own passions. Bronte’s Jane is a free and independent woman equal to any other person, but also bows the knee to the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.
She is powerful enough to deny herself and Rochester so by the end of the book is liberated indeed.
It would be too much to expect secularizing Britain to understand a woman who was neither slave or feminist, but merely Christian. As a result, they have made a film that does not challenge, but instead placates the core audience, if the reaction at the screening full of gracefully aging NPR-listening female English majors I observed, is any indication.
This a very good movie, well worth the time and is the best in a weak class, but it is a missed opportunity at being a great movie. As a result, it will become required AP English high school viewing with all the uncomfortable bits to the modern NEA-types hidden in the attic.