Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" has been my favorite book since I was 11 years old. The tale of a feisty orphan-girl-turned-governess who finds true love in a spooky mansion and ultimately redeems a tormented hero has made it to the top of every "Best Love Stories" list since it was first published in 1847, and with good reason. It's the perfect Gothic novel, melding mystery, horror, and the classic medieval castle setting with heart-stopping romance.
There have been at least 18 film versions of "Jane Eyre" and 9 made-for-television movies--27 in all! I have seen most of them, some multiple times–-both out of my deep love for the tale, and as part of the research for my novel "The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë," the true story of Charlotte's remarkable life, her inspiration behind "Jane Eyre," and her turbulent, real-life romance.
Every screen version of JANE EYRE has its merits. I especially loved Timothy Dalton's portrayal of Mr. Rochester in the 1983 mini-series, and the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre mini-series starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. I was very curious to see how the new JANE EYRE adaptation from Focus Films would measure up. I am happy to report that the film, which I saw last night at an advance screening, is very good indeed, with marvelous visuals, terrific performances, and enough unique elements to make it a worthy new addition.
The most notable distinction that sets this film apart from the rest is its structure. Rather than telling the tale in a linear fashion, it begins at a crisis moment later in the story, and tells the majority of the tale in flashback–-which works wonderfully well, enabling screenwriter Moira Buffini to effectively compress a long novel into a two-hour time span.
The movie opens as Jane is fleeing Thornfield after having discovered Mr. Rochester's dark and heartbreaking secret. We fear for her as she becomes lost on the stormy moor. The mystery continues as St. John Rivers (well-played by a sympathetic yet appropriately stern Jamie Bell) and his sisters take her in. As Jane ruminates about the past events that led to her escape, we are treated to the story in flashback.
The casting of Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre also sets this production apart, since she is closer in age than most actresses who've played the role to the character in the novel, who was about 18 years old in the Thornfield section. Although I wish Mia's Jane was a bit more "swoony" over Mr. Rochester earlier on (yes, she is supposed to be stoic, but I missed that phase where we get to see her blossom as she falls in love with him, and then is utterly crushed when she believes him to be in love with Miss Ingram), Mia truly inhabits the role, beautifully portraying Jane's sense of self-respect, integrity, and restraint, as well as her passion and vulnerability.
Michael Fassbender embodies Mr. Rochester with the ideal blend of charisma and sinister brooding, while at the same time allowing glimpses of his underlying desperation and the wounded depths of his soul. Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Reed effectively portrays the icy ogre who menaces the young Jane (a spirited and appealing Amelia Clarkson.) And Judi Dench, as always, gives a superb performance as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax.
The film's locations do justice to the novel's often gloomy, atmospheric tone. Director Cary Fukunaga makes excellent use of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, one of the oldest houses in England, as Thornfield Hall, emphasizing its dark, Gothic, masculine feel. The exterior locations--gardens, cliffs, craggy rocks, stone walls, and seemingly endless fields--make an arresting, dramatic backdrop for the story. You truly feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere.
My only minor gripes are that when Mr. Rochester's secret is revealed, it feels a little too prettified, and the ending was too abrupt for me. But that aside, the filmmakers have done a masterful job translating the novel to the screen. I highly recommend it! --Syrie James