Jane Eyre is quite possibly my favorite book ever (I say possibly because, really, who can pick a single favorite?) I have read it at least half a dozen times since the fateful first encounter when I was sixteen and absolutely riveted by Jane and Rochester, the breath-catching romance and the flesh-creeping spookiness.
I was, however, rather nonplussed when I first heard that a new film version was coming out. I have seen several different renditions of the novel in film and am unimpressed with all of them, except for the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre miniseries. That version, starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson was quite good, so much so that I didn't think there really needed to be another version already. After seeing the film on Saturday, however, I feel that Fukunaga's version has definite merit.
There are a few problems, the most significant being length. It is just too problematic trying to cram a 500+ page Victorian "loose baggy monster" into a 2-hour feature film format. Several scenes that I found important (though, admittedly, not essential) were cut, in particular the ones in which Mr. Rochester attempts to deck his fiancee in finery, which she is having none of. Of course, this is no doubt due to my interest in fashion in literature, but I see these scenes as important in establishing Jane's resistance to attempts to manipulate her sense of self and identity. The other significant scene cut is Bertha ripping Jane's veil and blowing the candle out in her face the night before the wedding. I was particularly shocked that this was eliminated, since from the trailer it looked as though the film was going to play up the Gothic elements. However, Bertha actually gets very little screen time at all.
Also, while overall the casting was quite good (and excellent in Mia Wasikowska as Jane, but more on that later), I was a bit dissatisfied with Michael Fassbender's Rochester. He's just a bit too....mean. Particularly in the earliest scenes, he is vicious. Which doesn't match the Rochester of the book, where he is stern and gruff and commanding, but also funny and tender; Fassbender seems to forget the latter in his efforts to convince us of the former. Jamie Bell's St. John Rivers is also problematic, but for the opposite reason: he is too nice. The film insinuates that St. John is actually attracted to Jane and wants to marry her for romantic, as well as evangelical purposes; we have none of the St. John of the book's icy "you were formed for labor, not for love" pronouncements. And there is, of course, no Rosamund Oliver. Oh, and Jane being a cousin to the Riverses is not mentioned at all....
But, enough with the problems. First, the film is gorgeous. It opens with Jane's flight across the moors as she leaves Thornfield, a red sky with rain in the distance behind her, and it just gets better from there. There seems to have been a commitment to authenticity in many of the details. For example, the scenes shot in those dark corridors of the Thornfield appear to be lighted by only the candle the actors are carrying--no mysterious, bright-as-day "moonlight" creeping in--you actually see what it might have been like to live in a pre-electric time. The clothes are also wonderful, from the chemises, petticoats, and corsets outward. Jane appears in her blacks and greys of course, but with subtle plaids and stripes.
And, then, Jane herself. Mia Wasikowska is fantastic. She looks like Jane, who is described as small and plain. The plain part is easy: even the prettiest woman stripped of her make-up and forced into that distinctive 1840's hairstyle with that severe center part and braids looping around the ears is going to look plain. But Wasikowska is able to pull off expressions that convey the sense of passion being forced back by reason. It's all about restraint. I like Ruth Wilson's Jane, but she is a bit too jolly, smiles a bit too easily, and cries a bit too heartily. Wasikowska is more subtle: a flicker of flame hinting at (but neither revealing nor hiding) the inferno beneath.
There were so many really good scenes, but I'll just mention two that were particularly memorable--the proposal beneath the oak tree really demonstrates Wasikowska's restraint. I have told my students that I think the most important lines in the novel are probably the ones where Jane says "Do you think that because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little that am soulless and heartless?" And Wasikowska nails it. It was during this scene that my husband, who has never read the book and does not profess any great interest in classic British literature, looked at me and announced, "This is good." The other scene that is particularly well-done is the one where Rochester is trying to convince Jane to stay after the discovery of Bertha. Oh, the agony. But, oh the restraint. You can see Jane struggling, not allowing herself to touch Rochester, literally crying out to God for help. It's breath-taking.
If you haven't seen the film, it is definitely worth watching (and I would love to know what you think). Good luck finding it in a theater near you: we drove to the next county to find it in a small, artsy theater. But it was certainly worth it!