I have been super excited about the new Jane Eyre film for months. It came out here in New York on limited release this weekend, and I joined the queue with a couple of friends to see it at the lovely Sunshine cinema downtown on Saturday night. For some strange reason it’s only on in two cinemas in Manhattan, and as such, they asked us all to fill in questionnaires about how we found the film, as they’re treating this as a trial run to see whether they can let it go to general release. I very much hope it does go to general release, because let me tell you – it’s superb.
It opens with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) leaving Thornfield after the aborted wedding ceremony, and escaping onto the moors. She then finds her way to the Rivers’ cottage, and it is from the vantage point of being questioned by St John (a surprisingly well suited Jamie Bell), Diana and Mary that her story is told, from early days at the Reed’s, to Lowood and then at Thornfield, through flashbacks. Her experiences at St John’s are interspersed between the flashbacks. I thought this was a very clever way of telling the story, and really highlights the anguish Jane was in when she was in the Rivers’ home, continually haunted by memories of her past and of Rochester (Michael Fassbender). No other adaptation I have seen has managed to convey just how difficult that year in Jane’s life was, when she had no idea what had happened to Rochester or where her life was going to lead her, and the flipping of the timeline of the story works wonders at showing Jane’s state of mind during the St John episode, and shows how important that part of the novel is, which is often dismissed as weak or boring.
Mia Wasikowska is an excellent Jane not just because she was actually a teenager when this was filmed, isn’t Hollywood pretty, and is tiny compared to Michael Fassbender’s towering Rochester, but because she is wonderful at portraying the personality I always imagined Jane to have. She shows her intelligence, her steadfastness, her courage and her independence, but she also shows her sense of fun and her joy in life. She is not presented as a prig or a victim, but as a thoroughly wonderful, witty, warm girl with a fire in her heart and a fierce sense of what is right and wrong that she will not waver from. She is truly Charlotte Bronte’s vision of Jane as I have always read her.
Michael Fassbender is also terrific in his role, and is the only Rochester I have seen who manages to get across just how cruel Rochester can be; he tortures Jane needlessly with Blanche Ingram, is dimissive and rude towards Mrs Fairfax, and makes it obvious he can hardly bear the presence of Adele. However, underneath this often unkind and volatile behaviour, there is a sparkle, a kindness, a passion, that makes him irresistible. It is easy to see how Jane could fall in love with this damaged creature, and despite all of their differences, it makes sense that they are drawn to each other as irrevocably as they are; the chemistry between them is remarkable. Especially when compared to Jamie Bell’s perfect, quiveringly repressed St John, Rochester’s virility and sensitivity are irresistible, and it’s clear to see that Jane could never settle for anything less than this magnificently tortured soul she has forced herself to part from.
Alongside the terrific characterisation and acting, the cinematography is breathtaking. The Yorkshire moors are one of the most beautiful natural sights I have ever seen, and their moody unpredictability is shown to full effect in Jane Eyre, with sweeping views across its misty, barren, undulating landscape that echoes the gothic, emotionally intense landscape of the characters’ hearts. It made me incredibly homesick to see Jane tramping through muddy, foggy lanes, her breath escaping in clouds; I could almost smell the damp air that is peculiar to the British climate, always heavy with the pungent odours of earth and impending rain. The costumes were also wonderful; simple, modest, and unobtrusive. There was actually one of Mia Wasikowska’s costumes on display in the cinema lobby, and I could see that it had been made of plain linen, naturally dyed, and sewn beautifully by hand; brilliantly accurate for the simplicity and modesty of Jane’s taste.
Obviously there are aspects of the novel that are left out; some characters don’t appear, some don’t appear enough, some plot points are not introduced and some relationships are not fully developed, but the essential story, atmosphere and characters are presented so brilliantly and convincingly that it doesn’t really matter; you don’t need these periphery details to understand or become involved in the central events. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Bertha is hardly shown at all, and the temptation to ‘Wide Sargasso Sea-ise’ her role in the novel is well and truly avoided. She is always there, in the background, of course, but that is where she belongs; she is not a central part of the story, as I have always read it, and I dislike it when adaptations seek to postmodernise the novel and make it about female repression and postcolonialism, giving Bertha a far more prominent role than Bronte does.
I normally have a lot of bones to pick with adaptations of my favourite novels, but for once, I was left wholly satisfied. Jane Eyre has been done a magnificent justice in this film, and I strongly urge you all to go and watch it when it comes out where you are! You really won’t be disappointed.