Eyre on the Side of Caution

One thing to be grateful for regarding the new film version of Jane Eyre: director Cory Fukunaga has resisted the new trend of reimagining classic novels with modern monsters (think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Oh sure, there’s a passing reference to the spectral Mrs. Rochester, the secret inhabitant of Thornfield Hall, as a bloodsucking ghost, but this isn’t a concession to our popular culture’s current obsession with vampires. Like most of the action and much of the dialogue, it comes straight from Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel about the friendless orphan, Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska), who manages, despite her lack of beauty and fortune, to obtain an education, have a career, and get the guy — only after overcoming serious obstacles, of course.

This reverence for the source material is also the downside of the latest screen version. Although Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini dispense with some of the coincidences that are so abundant in 19th-century British fiction (but seriously strain contemporary viewers’ suspension of disbelief), for the most part the filmmakers hew so closely to the book’s narrative without offering any fresh insights that fans of the novel may wonder what the point of the exercise was. Personally, I found myself wishing for a film that combined elements of Jane Eyre with Jean Rhys’s revisionist prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which sought to humanize Mrs. Rochester by relating the story of her Caribbean childhood and unhappy marriage.

Alas, that’s not what Fukunaga is up to here. Instead, the filmmakers manage to offer an adaptation that is faithful in most of its details but lacks the soul of the novel that has captivated so many readers. Wasikowska’s pensive Jane and Michael Fassbender’s mercurial Mr. Rochester have good onscreen chemistry (although Fassbender, who looks a bit like a young Kevin Kline, can hardly be regarded as ugly, as Rochester supposedly is). But most of the other characters have so little depth that it’s hard to care about them or understand why they’re important. Judi Dench’s prodigious talents are all but wasted in her role as Thornfield Hall’s kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, and the lasting influence of Jane’s doomed school friend, Helen Burns, on Jane’s life and character are not even hinted at.

But the most significant problem is that the central conflict of the novel — the scandal that launched a thousand doctoral dissertations — namely, the fact that Mr. Rochester, when he proposes marriage to Jane, neglects to mention that he’s already married and keeping his mad wife locked in the attic of his grand house, is seriously undersold. Not only do the filmmakers inexplicably miss the opportunity to get viewers’ pulses racing with some Gothic horror or suspense elements (What are the strange noises Jane hears at night in the house? What is the secret everybody seems to be keeping?), but the gut-punch that viewers should feel when Rochester’s deception is revealed is also missing.

Everything feels just a bit too tidy in the film, with conflicts resolved too easily, and no real attention paid to the difficult choices Jane has to make. Come to think of it, maybe a few zombies would have helped.

Jane Eyre. Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, and Judi Dench star in a film directed by Cory Fukunaga, written by Moira Buffini, and based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements (though one could hardly imagine a more chaste film); running time: 120 minutes.

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