THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS
What’s your tale of woe?, Mr. Rochester inquires; for every governess has one, and Jane, being his ward’s, should be no exception. If at first Jane replies that she doesn’t have a tale of woe, she soon contradicts herself by telling it: after her parents’s death, she was at the care of her aunt, Mrs. Reed, who at first chance sent Jane away to Lowood – a charity school where she would receive the most thorough education.
Interestingly enough, it is not with this tale of woe that Jane Eyre begins: as the first scene unfolds we witness a wandering and desperate Jane accompanied by a violin’s piercing cry – its melody a wonder of Dario Marianelli’s creativity and exquisite taste. She’s carried into a warm house by the shadow of a man, where she mumbles and lies between the torments of her recent pain and memories. Only now we are taken back to her time as a child and young adult, through flashbacks that occur during most of the film.
This deliberate chronological alteration of the story’s order is both refreshing and cinematically useful. In fact, refreshing may very well be the keyword to Cary Fukunaga’s take on Charlotte Bront’s most beloved novel: despite the countless who ventured in adaptations of Jane Eyre before, this young director with solely two feature-length films (Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre) has a distinctive and astute vision that earns a notable place amongst its predecessors. Fully capturing the atmosphere of this XIX century gothic novel, Fukunaga mixes the classic elements of horror and romance, which in Jane Eyre read like wicked mystery and disarming passion, giving to both equal value, and harmonising the two as naturally and enticingly as the original novel does.
Jane is presented like a sheep among wolves. She’s a woman of firm integrity who fights for her independence in a time where women had little to none, but who is constantly a target for the possessive tendencies of men: Mr. Brocklehurst who viciously punishes and humiliates her in Lowood, Mr. Rochester who deceives and tries to corrupt her, and St. John who regards her solely as a useful working hand. She will survive the evilness of Brocklehurst, decline St. John’s debasing offer, and reject Mr. Rochester’s proposal until he has redeemed himself from his past sins. For all her strength and forward thinking, Jane Eyre is one of the strongest female characters ever imagined, and Brontë’s feminist ideals of equality are directly expressed in the book, vigorously clashing with the ones of the victorian society she lived in.
Interpreted by Mia Wasikowska with exceptional maturity, Jane is heartbreaking in her tears, inspiring in her virtues and, above all, strong in her insecurities. The young actress perfectly embodies that plain and fragil look with a fierce soul, innocent in many ways, but armed with a different kind of wisdom. She falls in love with Edward Rochester, whose alluring charms pose both a threat and the key to Jane’s happiness. Like any good byronic hero, Mr. Rochester has a secretive darkness that weights on his soul, that makes him cold and distant, even condescending and unkind. He aches, and don’t we love that. With Jane, he begins to crack that harsh and defensive attitude in soft displays of affection, emotional confessions and, eventually, sudden bursts of passion.
Still, something wicked lurks around the house. Unfortunately, the element of suspense won’t do much in terms of surprising the audience, once it’s almost given that most of it is already acquainted with the story. However, Fukunaga highlights the novel’s horror aspects and somewhat subtle supernatural happenings that serve as oppressive force on the lover’s story, and pose as highly symbolic details – and therefore make Jane Eyre all the more interesting. From misty woods, to poorly lit corridors and haunting cries, the daunting sense of terror is everywhere, sneaking upon us every now and then, and remind us that all the colourful spring kisses have their days numbered.
St. John River is played by Jamie Bell – an interesting choice, and a gracefully right one. In just a couple of scenes we can identify his most defining personality traits, so he is as deep and intriguing in a few minutes as he is in a multitude of pages. Sally Hawkins is as bitter and human as we need Mrs. Reed to be, and Imogen Poots has just enough spark to make Jane and us jealous. Valentina Cervi is also fine portraying the necessary madness of Bertha, and Judi Dench makes for a witty and warm Mrs. Fairfax, charmingly portraying one of the few characters that unconditionally love Jane.
Director Cary Fukunaga not only managed to successfully squeeze all the key parts of the novel into two hours, leaving just a few scenes that I’d liked to have seen depicted behind, but also managed to capture the spirit of Jane Eyre cleverly and beautifully. Its slow pace and soothing quietude draw our eyes to stunning and symbolic visuals, ever changing to create just the right atmosphere. It is therefore a more sensitive that aims to awaken our senses.
The cinematography of Jane Eyre is addressed in Film Aesthetics.