Memo to Hollywood: There are other books.
By my count there have been at least 16 big-screen adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, as well as another dozen or so made for TV. The tale has been prequel-ized and sequel-ized several times over, most memorably in Jean Rhys’ wowza Wide Sargasso Sea (which scored its own naughty NC-17 adaptation back in 1993, plus a slightly classier BBC translation in 2006). Jane Eyre has spawned ballets, operas, a symphony and even a comic book. I’d also be derelict in my critical duties if I didn’t mention Val Lewton’s and Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 take on the material: I Walked With A Zombie.
With these iconic roles already assayed by Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Colin Clive, Elizabeth Taylor, George C. Scott, Susannah York, William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Anna Paquin, Samantha Morton, Ciaran Hinds, Timothy Dalton and even Andrea Martin and Joe Flaherty on SCTV, is there anything more that could possibly be gleaned from spending yet another couple hours with Jane and Mr. Rochester?
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2011 take is dutiful, for the most part adequate and, as far as I can see, has absolutely no compelling reason to exist. Scripted by Moira Buffini, who last year penned Stephen Frears’ dreadful countryside farce Tamara Drewe , the movie hits every expected CliffsNotes highlight, streamlining the story but offering no fresh insight or contemporary resonance—which I foolishly assumed was the reason artists revisited classic works in the first place.
Fukunaga helmed 2008’s gritty immigration drama Sin Nombre , which struck this viewer as another one of those MTV music videos for poverty that were all the rage back in the City Of God/Slumdog Millionaire era. He initially attempts to shake up the text with some rough-hewn naturalism, fixating on the Derbyshire landscapes and overplaying the miserable weather. The shots are handheld and often underexposed, announcing from the outset that this isn’t your mom’s Jane Eyre .
Except really, it is. Once you look past the shaky cameras and ugly costumes, there’s nothing new. We begin with young orphaned Jane (deftly played by Amelia Clarkson) facing a litany of abuse and being locked in the red room by nasty Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins, temperamentally a very long way from her turn in Happy-Go-Lucky ). Things go from bad to worse when Jane’s shipped off to the Lowood School, where she watches her best friend die of typhus.
Upon her eventual graduation from this miserable pit, Jane lands a job as governess at Thornfield Hall. She also appears to have misplaced her personality somewhere amid all these expository flashbacks. Clarkson plays the young Jane as a raging spitfire, with the precocious guile of a Manny & Lo -era Scarlett Johansson (if you can remember that brief period before she started acting with her curves). But, replaced by It Girl Mia Wasikowska for the adult segments, Jane becomes inert. Staring vacantly into space and offering a single facial expression that indicates bewilderment, it’s a drastically different performance than the one we were watching before. It’s also a dull one.
Luckily, Michael Fassbender is there to liven things up as the moody Mr. Rochester. Wearing some extremely unfortunate, pubic-looking sideburns, this wry Irish actor offers a less operatically tormented Rochester than Welles’ legendary turn, instead playing up the character’s lazy contempt for everyone in his company. He’s perpetually in a snit, with a devastating quip for every occasion, and it’s a treat to watch Fassbender thawing into his unexpected feelings for this mouthy governess.
If only Jane were as mouthy as he claims. Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre quickly becomes one of those movies where the supporting characters spend the majority of their screen time telling the lead how great she is, without any of those admirable traits being visible to the viewer. Judi Dench is on hand to shovel heaps of exposition and to compliment Jane at every turn. Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell appears, smitten with what he calls “her spirit” and gets stranded in the kind of role Colin Firth used to play 15 years ago, back when he was every woman’s second choice.
Wasikowska, who also appeared in The Kids Are All Right and that dire Alice In Wonderland thing, has a sizable critical fanbase, but I’m baffled by her appeal. There’s none of the backbone and fortitude we keep hearing that Jane has in spades. For the most part she just blandly stands around, suffering from Fukunaga’s ugly natural lighting and deliberately drab color scheme.
Perhaps Amelia Clarkson will be old enough to finish the job as the adult Jane when the inevitable remake comes around in another five or six years.
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender and Jamie Bell
Running time: 104 minutes