Having enjoyed Susanna White’s 2006 television adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I was interested to see what director Cary Fukunaga would bring to this new feature length version.
All in all, I was impressed, especially with the way Fukunaga and writer Moira Buffini stay close to the novel, but ruthlessly strip the story down to its bare bones, giving emphasis to some aspects of the novel that other adaptations tend to avoid. Gone are the stories of Bessie and Miss Temple. Gone, too, are most of Bertha’s appearances, Grace Poole, and much of Jane and Rochester’s engagement. More daringly, the film refuses to represent the burning of Thornfield Hall and Bertha’s final leap to her death, a melodramatic staple scene in most Jane Eyre adaptations. Gone is “Reader, I married him” and any attempt to represent Jane and Rochester’s life together after she decides to return to him. I didn’t like all the cuts, but I thought it was quite brave and allowed other aspects of the text to come forth.
In the 2006 adaptation, Ruth Wilson played Jane as a steely, straight-talking, and passionate young woman. Mia Wasikowska’s Jane is a young woman who suppresses her anger beneath a pale, cold and standoffish exterior. Michael Fassbinder gave us what I would say is the best Rochester since Orson Welles. Although Rochester works on the page, he’s fiendishly difficult to represent sympathetically on screen, but Fassbinder manages to convey the intense loneliness and despair that underlies all his bluster and libertinism. Judy Dench is on autopilot as Mrs Fairfax, but she’s always watchable. It was nice to see little Adele get more screen time and played by an actress of around the right age. Jamie Bell is excellent as St John Rivers, making him rather more human than he comes across in the novel.
The film emphasises the violence of Jane’s childhood, the scene at the beginning in which John Reed hits her with the book is a genuine shock. It also keeps much of the novel’s gothic atmosphere – we jumped several times. I was pleased by the inclusion of Jane’s feminist speech about the lack of opportunities for women. Perhaps more daringly, it retains the uncomfortable moment when Rochester sort of threatens to rape Jane. The threat is stronger in the novel, but it’s suggested here too. It also represents the telepathic connection between Rochester and Jane without it appearing ridiculous.
I was disappointed by the lack of Bertha and especially regretted the loss of the veil ripping scene. I missed the burning of Thornfield too and was annoyed to see that Rochester had lost his sight, but retained both his hands at the end, the director apparently deciding that Bronte is a little too hard on him. My partner said that the loss of the hand would be “too much”, to which I replied, “But representing the telepathy isn’t too much?”, and so the argument continued. I found the ending a bit abrupt too, stopping just as they get back together. After such a harrowing tale, I want more of an emotional pay-off, damn it!
The screenplay also removes the revelation that the Rivers siblings are actually Jane’s cousins. This is sensible, insofar as it saves them having to represent a ridiculous coincidence, but removing the relationship makes it seem like Jane is trying to buy a family when she offers to share her inheritance with them, and, I have to say, rather mercenary of them to accept it! It’s a part of the novel that clunks and changing it only makes it clunk louder here.
Still, this stripped down gothic Jane Eyre looks gorgeous, is very well directed and I think will stand as one of the best adaptations for some time.