Fukunaga crafts meticulous, vibrant new 'Jane Eyre'
Rising filmmaker (and UC Santa Cruz grad) Cary Joji Fukunaga wants to keep you guessing. His impressive first feature, Sin Nombre, was a gritty look at gang violence south of the border—in Spanish, yet. With his follow-up film, a new version of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's evergreen Victorian-era romance, not only does Fukunaga achieve a complete about-face, material-wise, his retelling proves to be a deeply felt, beautifully wrought little gem of mood and sensibility.
In this rich unveiling of the oft-told tale, Fukunaga finds a kindred spirit in scriptwriter Moira Buffini. No stranger to Victoriana (she wrote the witty adaptation of Posy Simmonds' Hardy-esque Tamara Drewe), Buffini's smart script mines every nuance of feeling out of Brontë's story, spoken and otherwise, combined with a meticulous sense of what was and was not done according to the mores of the day. Together, the filmmakers resist every temptation to resort to overheated melodrama, weaving instead a compelling narrative of urgent emotional suspense.
This film begins with what is often considered a minor incident (if included at all) in traditional adaptations of the story: Jane (the poised and quietly passionate Mia Wasikowska), in desperate flight across the moors, running away from gloomy old Thornfield Hall. Taken in by impoverished young clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters, she reveals nothing of her past to her kind benefactors, but flashbacks acquaint the audience with her story. As an orphan, young Jane (Amelia Clarkson) is sent to live with a distant relative, Mrs. Reed (a waspish Sally Hawkins), whose callous cruelty breeds defiance in the little girl. Banished to the grim Lowood charity school to "root out (her) wickedness," she makes and loses one cherished friend before being turned out at age 18 to earn her keep as a governess at Thornfield Hall.
There, Jane is welcomed by the kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), and takes charge of her new pupil, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore). The little French girl is the daughter of the absent master of the house and a woman of evidently dubious repute. (Dench's expression is priceless, watching the child perform a saucy song taught her by her late Maman.) Jane quickly bonds with Adele, but the house is thrown into an uproar with the arrival of its master, the tempestuous Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), on one of his infrequent visits.
It is, of course, the evolving relationship between mild Jane and stormy, abrupt Rochester that provides the heart of the story, and Fukunaga and Buffini take their time to get the details just right. Although she is "poor, obscure, plain, and little," Jane's sense of justice is keen, and she does not shrink from sharing her opinions—if directly invited—in scrupulously polite terms. Rochester finds her honesty refreshing, and gladly elevates her to the status of a social equal (inviting her to sit in on his house parties, etc.) for the pleasure of her conversation. Jane chafes at the silliness of such affairs, but begins to perceive what his upper-class cronies do not—the desperate loneliness beneath Rochester's wild ways.
Brontë's novel is the prototype for a thousand lesser Victoria romances about penniless governesses and their dark, brooding, rakish employers. (Complete with a tragic secret, and a spooky, mysterious presence in the attic.) Fukunaga's treatment sidesteps the usual genre clichés to focus on the social and physical realities of the period underpinning the story. It says a lot about gender and social position when the women are obliged to sit in silent, obedient apprehension as the master ambles about, creating havoc. In Fukunaga's universe (gorgeously photographed by Adriano Goldman), blazing fires and banks of candles are the only source of nighttime light; when they're extinguished, it's suddenly pitch black. And the sensuous delight of the veiled, ruffled gown is balanced by a woman's struggle to claw open the laces, afterwards, to get out of it.
What's preserved throughout is Jane's determination to forge her own place in the world, however modest or grand it may be, so long as she can “respect” herself. It's a message that bears repeating, no matter how many versions of the story you have seen.
★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, and Judi Dench. Written by Moira Buffini. From the novel by Charlotte Bronte. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. A Focus Features release. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes.
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