I am not a Jane Eyre expert. I’ve read the novel but not since high school, when it was required reading (required summer reading at that, which meant I put off reading it until the bitter end of vacation, then steamrolled through it as quickly as possible and retained very little of what I’d read). For some reason Jane’s childhood woes, particularly the death of her one beloved friend at school, were the only parts of the book that really stuck with me. I feel like it’s the sort of story I should have liked, just like I feel like I should have enjoyed Wuthering Heights so much more than I did when I first read it for Sophomore English (I have re-read that one, by the way, and have, in fact, come to love it very much), because the Bronte sisters do crazy gothic romance like nobody’s business and I consider myself a fan of highly strung romantic escapades (especially when they involve possible supernatural elements and moors - which all the Bronte output seems to do).
Nonetheless I have never felt compelled to revisit Jane Eyre like I did Wuthering Heights, so I can’t say with any certainty that this version gets it right any more than any of the other film adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s novel (none of which I think I’ve watched all the way through). What I can say is that I enjoyed the movie very much and found it appropriately gothic, romantic, pretty and swoon-worthy. It’s well paced and particularly engaging in the second half, when the love story really gets going, and the performances are outstanding. The secondary characters all fare well thanks to the talent of a strong supporting cast which includes Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins and Tamzin Merchant (who is essentially reprising her Pride and Prejudice role of younger woman who dotes on the heroine, with just as much charm in the latter as she exhibited in the former). Amelia Clarkson deserves a mention as well, for creating, in just a handful of scenes, a young Jane that is both strong and sympathetic. But the movie really belongs, as it should, to Michael Fassbender’s Rochester and Mia Wasikowska’s brilliant Jane. Even though I had only seen each of them in one movie apiece (Inglorious Basterds for him, Alice in Wonderland for her) it was their names that made me want to see the movie in the first place and they certainly do not disappoint. Fassbender plays Rochester as melancholy and ill-tempered but also sly and playful. It’s as if he knows no one else is going to entertain him so he sets out to amuse himself. In certain scenes there’s this wonderful twinkle in his eye, like he’s thinking of some private joke that amuses him to no end. I like that there’s something there to balance out all the angst and brooding that Rochester has to carry around with him. And he is matched by Wasikowska, who is capable of conveying the attraction Jane feels for Rochester, almost the instant she meets him, as well as the practical side of the character who instinctively guards herself against those feelings. I think the movie does a wonderful job of making Wasikowska, a very pretty girl, look plain, insignificant even, but never frumpy or homely. She’s styled and lighted harshly and Wasikowska carries herself in a kind of hunched over, perpetual air of timidity. But her eyes betray the fact that her Jane is strong, smart and fierce. The movie could almost work as a silent film based on the expressiveness of Wasikowska’s eyes. She made me root for Jane from start to finish.
While I appreciate most of director Cary Fukunaga’s choices, the film has an austere elegance that seems appropriate for a story about an intelligent but reserved heroine like Jane, I do think the movie making occasionally feels a little too safe and conservative. In fact there are moments that could probably be used interchangeably with any other stately BBC-produced literary adaptation that’s been made in the last ten years. I sometimes, over the course of the movie, found myself wishing for a director with a slightly stronger visual vocabulary and a more distinctive sense of style. Someone like Jane Campion, perhaps, or even Joe Wright. But I only felt like that part of the time because there are also individual scenes in Jane Eyre that are rich and marvelous – like the one when Jane is reading a picture book with her pupil, Adele, and the illustration on the page is distorted by the lens of a tilted magnifying glass, or the masterfully composed scene nearer the end of the movie when an anxious Jane nervously paces alongside the neatly trimmed hedges – and I find myself thinking about those striking moments, as well as those incredibly effective performances by Fassbender and Wasikowska, several days after having seen the film. I wish Jane Eyre could have had a few more moments like that, if only to help it stand out a bit more from all the other Jane Eyre interpretations. Because I do think that this is a very good movie and that it is definitely worth seeing, even if it feels, at times, like you’ve seen it before.