The sky is gray with darkened clouds. The forest is shrouded in creepy fog. The wind is mercilessly blowing on the barren moor. And there is a huge, ominous mansion owned by the unpleasant man who has the equally unpleasant secret hidden inside somewhere in the house. And our young heroine comes to this brooding mansion to find herself attracted to her employer who is definitely someone who must be approached with a certain degree of tactfulness.
Charlotte Brontë’s classic gothic novel has been loved by many, has been imitated by many including that pathetically cheap imitation called “Twilight”, and, above all, has been adapted for many, many movies and TV miniseries since the 1910s according to IMDB. In the advertizing leaflet printed in South Korea, they say “Jane Eyre” (2011), the latest version directed by Cary Fukunaga, is the 21th adaptation, but IMDB say it’s the 20th adaptation. With so many versions, such a mistake can be forgiven.
Like its many predecessors we have seen before, the latest version follows the basic plot of the novel except some notable changes(To be frank with you, I have seen only two versions: 1943 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine and the 1996 version starring William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg). As an orphan, young Jane Eyre(Amelia Clarkson) had a hard time at the house of her mean aunt(Sally Hawkins). Her aunt hated her, and so did Jane. She was sent to the harsh boarding school worthy of a Dickens novel, where she would spend most of her childhood and adolescence under the sadistic supervision by Mr. Brocklehurst(Simon McBurney), who did not like Jane’s defiant attitude from the first time they met each other.
Soon we meet adult Jane, now played by Mia Wasikowska. Although she is alone in the world outside the school as before, she is willing to lead her life despite her inexperience. She is hired as a governess at Thornfield Hall, the huge mansion where she teaches a young French girl named Adele(Romy Settbon Moore). The house environment is not exactly sunny, but Adele is a likable girl, and the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax(Judy Dench) is kind to Jane.
She does not meet her employer, Mr. Rochester(Michael Fassbender), on her first day at Thornfield Hall, for he is usually not in his house. Some time later, he returns to his house, and, after their accidental meeting in the foggy forest and the following formal meeting at his brooding private place, the mutual feelings are generated in the hearts of both. However, bound by the customs and conventions of that time, both hesitate to reveal their feelings. In addition, strange things happen at night. There is something disturbing hidden in the mansion – something so shameful that Rochester chooses to do the wrong thing to Jane for maintaining his position as a gentleman rather than reveals his secret to her.
The screenplay writer Moira Buffini makes some deletions and changes in her adaptation. Her modifications work well in most cases. One of the notable changes in the film compared to other versions is that Jane’s childhood is more condensed through flashback. As a result, the film has relatively less power compared to other versions in that part(for instance, 1996 version, regarded by many as one of the weaker versions, was memorable with Anna Paquin as Young Jane), but it proceeds more quickly into the main plot instead, while pointing out well how hypocritically sadistic some people were at that time.
And there is notable improvement with Jane’s story with the pastor named St. John Rivers(Jamie Bell), who saves her in the opening scene where she wanders around the forest and the moor against harsh weather in quite a distressed state. St. John Rivers part has been always like the baggage that must be dealt with for the adapters, but Buffini uses Rivers as a tool to emphasize the feministic point Brontë indirectly made in her novel. In the movie, Rivers is a kind man, but his views on women and marriage is as conservative as the conventions at that time, and Jane will not agree to his opinion as a woman who wants to lead her life independently. If she marries someone, that is because she chooses him, not because she follows him.
The director Cary Fukunaga’s previous work(and also his first work) was “Sin Nombre”, a sad, gritty drama about the illegal immigrants who try to cross US-Mexico border at all costs. The world and the characters are much, much different in “Jane Eyre”, but Fukunaga knows about the hidden emotions causing the characters drawn to each other, as shown in his previous movie. And he is a talented director. In rather restrained approach, he lets the good production design, the good costumes, and the good actors to tell the story while maintaining that familiar atmosphere of gothic romance. Even when warm spring comes to Thornfield Hall with sunshine and clear sky, there is always grayness in the screen.
Again, some of you probably complain that Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre is not as plain as described in the books, but, what the hell, has Jane Eyre ever been that plain on the screen and TV? Quite different from her previous appearance in “Alice in the Wonderland” and “The Kids Are All Right” in last year, Waskiowska, 21 at present, is natural as a young, intelligent woman on the verge of adulthood. She makes the maturation of her character very believable, and the chemistry between her and Michael Fassbender is low-key but appropriate for the film’s atmosphere.
Fassbender is as handsome as the other versions of Mr. Rochester we have seen, but he is brooding and callous enough to be a sullen man who is, in objective view, a liar and cad who deeply hurts Jane’s heart(we get a pretty much good idea about who Adele is in one scene, by the way). As Mrs. Fairfax advises to Jane, it is rather wise to maintain some distance from such a man. Judy Dench is also good as a prudent housekeeper; she does not say everything, but we know she knows everything happening in the house.
Will there be more Jane Eyre movies? I think so, for Fukunaga’s version is not an ultimate version due to several flaws deemed to be inevitable in the adaptation process. Sometimes the movie feels like a summarized version of the book from time to time, and you will be a little disappointed if you expect it to be a passionate melodrama. None the less, this is surely one of the better end products we can get from the classic gothic romance novel.