When I was like 10 years old, I remember getting a stack of classic novels for my birthday and one of those books was JANE EYRE. The thickness of the novel scared me off for a couple of years before I finally mustered the courage to read it. Its one of the few books from my childhood that left an indelible impression on me for its epic and sweeping drama. I’ve never seen any of the earlier cinematic adaptations of the novel, but I know they’re out there and apparently, they’re supposed to be quite good. Quite honestly, I didn’t care a whole lot about this latest adaptation even after seeing the well crafted trailer. However, when the positive reviews came pouring in, I figured it might be something worth checking out especially considering how much I enjoyed the novel as a kid. Like most period romance movies, JANE EYRE is not for everyone so I’m not going to pretend that everyone who reads my review should go see it based on my recommendation. If you’re already inclined to see the film and you’re into these types of movies, then by all means go out and see this film. JANE EYRE is a solidly adapted, beautifully shot, and well acted drama that succeeds on many levels, but falls just a bit short of becoming a cinematic classic.

JANE EYRE, an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel, starts off in Dickensian fashion with a young, orphaned Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) being sent off by her cruel aunt to live and attend a charity school. Suffering under the rule of a strict, self-righteous clergyman, Eyre finally leaves the school after 8 years and provides her services as a governess. She is hired by a Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), who is a keeper at Thornfield Hall. Eyre is assigned to take care of a young French girl, who Eyre discovers is the daughter of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), the master of Thornfield Hall. Rochester, who has been abroad for a long time, finally returns home, at which time Eyre meets him. At first, Eyre is afraid of the master, due to his irascible and sarcastic nature. However, Rochester takes a liking to Eyre and the two soon fall in love. Going against the expectations of English society, Rochester proposes to Eyre and they decide to get married. On the day of their marriage, Eyre discovers to her horror that Rochester is already married and his insane wife is being kept in a hidden and locked room inside Thornfield Hall. Upset by this news, Eyre runs away and takes refuge in the home of two sisters who live with their brother, St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell). There, Eyre is accepted as a member of the family and she becomes a teacher for a little cottage school. However, Eyre cannot forget Rochester and she decides to go back to him and returns to Thornfield Hall. When she arrives back at Rochester’s manor, Eyre finds the house burned down. Afraid that Rochester might not be alive, Eyre is met by Mrs. Fairfax, who tells her that Rochester is alive, but that the fire caused him to be blind. Mrs. Fairfax tells Eyre where she can find Rochester and Eyre sets off to find him. She does so and the two are reunited once more.

As you might be able to tell from my synopsis, Charlotte Bronte’s romantic novel is a pretty broad epic romance that presents a huge challenge to any filmmaker who attempts to tell it in a 2 hour movie. It has been successfully done before (in 1944 with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine and in 1996 with Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt) and Cary Juji Fukunaga, the director of this latest incarnation, does a fine job once again in bringing the story to the screen. Unless you’re planning on either making a 4 hour adaptation or a series of films, its absolutely necessary to make an abridged version of the novel. I felt Fukunaga wisely selected the most pertinent portions of the novel to tell the story. I never felt like I was missing something in terms of understanding what was going on. The director moves away from convention by beginning the film from the story’s end and flashing back to the beginning. I thought that was a great way to create a sense of mystery to the story by engaging the audience into wondering how Jane Eyre ends up in the predicament she finds herself in at the end.

At the same time, however, a major drawback in this adaptation is the lack of connection with Jane Eyre’s miserable situation. The novel gives you a great sense of how lonely Eyre is in this cruel world. She has an aunt who doesn’t care for her. She endures years of torture at the school. And when she begins work at Thornfield Hall, Eyre must heed the societal stratifications of English society. Rochester doesn’t merely serve as a lover and potential husband. To Jane Eyre, he also represents a refuge, an unlikely sanctuary from the bad hand life has dealt the unfortunate woman. The economy that’s used to tell the story sacrifices much of this aspect of the novel and, as a result, the romance between Eyre and Rochester doesn’t carry as much weight and importance as it should.

The style and look of JANE EYRE is the film’s most noteworthy achievement. I would venture to guess that the director did not intend his film to be primarily remembered for this reason, but it does end up being the film’s strongest element. With the exception of Thornfield Hall, most of the film’s settings are barren, desolate, and are rendered with a desaturated look, which are presumably meant to reflect the harshness of Jane Eyre’s world. The look of the film is in sharp contrast to the conventional visualization of England in Victorian era novels. Its only in Thornfield Hall, where Jane is loved and desired, that you see the pretty little gardens and shit that most of us imagine England to be full of.

No period drama, especially one that is adapted from such a well-known novel, is capable of working without stellar performances from the principal cast. The role of Jane Eyre is played by up and comer young actress Mia Wasikowska (ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Now I’m not sure whether Wasikowska is a talented actress who is given roles that require her to barely emote any feelings or whether she has an extremely limited acting range, but for throughout most of the movie, the actress displays a stonelike demeanor. This is the same kind of performance the actress gave in ALICE IN WONDERLAND so I’m beginning to suspect that the problem isn’t with the direction she’s given but rather with the more problematic issue of lacking emotional range.

In contrast, Michael Fassbender as Rochester is superb. Fassbender is another up and coming actor (300, FISH TANK, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, and Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS) who holds a lot of promise. I first took notice of the actor in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, in which he did a fine job playing Lt. Archie Hicox. Here, Fassbender beautifully pulls off the moody, unhinged yet sympathetic and passionate Rochester and the best acting scenes in the film mostly belong to him. Rounding out the cast is Dame Judi Dench and Jamie Bell (who we saw earlier this year in THE EAGLE). Both are great in the small supporting roles they are given.

JANE EYRE is a good, but not great effort by Cary Juji Fukunaga. The film would have greatly benefitted with a longer running time to allow it to better flesh out the hardships endured by Jane Eyre and with an actress who could display a bit more emotion. However, as the film stands now, it’s a stylish, beautiful production that does overall justice to the source material.

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