Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" is an indelible work of literature. As such, it has seen dozens of cinematic adaptations including a silent film version in 1915 and a 1996 version directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. Perhaps, the most famous take is the 1944 version starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles and based on a script adapted by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. Director Cary Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini ("Tamara Drewe") have the unenviable task of breathing new life into a story that has been oft-told in film, television, and on stage.
Bronte incorporated many elements from her own life and beliefs in the original novel (published in 1847) with the title character serving as a sort-of analogue for the author. By all accounts, Bronte was a forward thinking woman, which informed Jane Eyre's views on the ultra-religious and patriarchal society she inhabited. Much like Jane Eyre, Bronte was also sent to a boarding school along with her sisters, including Emily, author of Wuthering Heights. The poor conditions of the school led to the deaths of her eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth due to tuberculosis.
At a young age Jane Eyre (played as a child by Amelia Clarkson) lost both her parents and was sent to live with her Uncle Reed and his family. When he dies, she is left in the care of her cruel Aunt Sarah (Sally Hawkins), who ships Jane off to the Lowood Institution, a Dickensian nightmare of fear and abuse. The headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney), has already branded Jane as deceitful and encourages all others to shun her. The one friend Jane does make dies due to the negligence of the staff.
Jane leaves Lowood as an adult (Mia Wasikowska) to accept a position as governess at the reclusive Thornfield Hall. She is taken in by the kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), but finds the lord of the house, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), is less than welcoming. Rochester spends little time at the estate and his first encounter with Jane could hardly be considered a meet cute after he is thrown from his horse. He even accuses Jane of bewitching his steed. This is exemplary of the brusque manner in which Rochester treats everyone around him. Yet, he is the first real man Jane has ever met and there is an undeniable attraction. Girls love the bad boys.
As their relationship grows, Rochester discovers Jane is an intelligent, young woman who isn't afraid to speak her mind or stand up to him. He finds her a refreshing change of pace from the cowering servants and the sycophantic bluebloods he usually converses with on a daily basis. But, Thornfield is a sinister place and she and her master hold their own dark secrets.
Fukunaga may seem like an odd choice to direct a 19th century romantic drama having made his feature film debut with "Sin Nombre," a thriller about gangbangers and South American immigrants making their way to America. Yet, he and Buffini have found a fresh approach to the source material by focusing on the love story between Jane and Rochester instead of attempting an all-encompassing adaptation. The film begins in media res with the rain-soaked heroine collapsing on the doorstep of the pious St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell). From there, Jane's tale of woe unfolds through a series of flashbacks. Still, it feels as if more screen time could have been devoted to their relationship and that the resolution came too quickly. At just under two hours, "Jane Eyre" (not counting end credits) is one of those rare instances where an extra fifteen or twenty minutes could have been an improvement to the overall narrative.
Despite a rushed conclusion, "Jane Eyre" is buoyed by a pair of powerhouse performances by its leads. Mia Wasikowska had already played a similar, eponymous role in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." While "Jane Eyre" provided a less colorful and fantastical world, Wasikowska displayed the same aura of strength and determination. On the page, Eyre was described as a plain looking girl and Fukunaga can't hide Wasikowska's natural beauty despite tying her hair back in a severe bun and hiding her face inside a bonnet. On film, Wasikowska's expressive eyes and pale, white skin make her look like a porcelain doll come to life, which adds to the fragility of her character. Her leading man is no slouch either. Michael Fassbender has risen in stature after strong performances in indie films like "Hunger" and "Fish Tank." He's come to the attention of Hollywood for his roles in "Inglourious Basterds" and most recently as Magneto, another tortured soul in "X-Men: First Class." Fassbender definitely gets his chance to play tortured again as the conflicted Rochester, running hot and cold at a moment's notice. The supporting cast is also good, including Simon McBurney, who seems to be giving Timothy Spall a run for his money as the go-to British character actor for malevolent antagonists. There's also the always dependable Judi Dench and Sally Hawkins, who does a complete 180 from the cheerful Poppy in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky."
The actors' work is accentuated by the atmospheric direction of Fukunaga and the cinematography of Adriano Goldman. Using only natural lighting, Goldman crafts a picturesque view of the English countryside, but the movie truly shines at night with only moonlight wafting through the curtains and the flickering of a candle to light the scene. The moody lighting does wonders to highlight the eeriness of Thornfield. You can almost feel the chilling winds hitting your body. It's no wonder so many died of a young age by tuberculosis, typhus, or pneumonia.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is a gorgeous transfer and none of the beauty of the cinematography is lost. Skin tones come off strong and natural while not a hint of digital noise pops up.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. "Jane Eyre" doesn't present a powerful package for your sound system, but it does just fine. Dialogue comes in crisp and clear.
The DVD includes an audio commentary track with director Cary Fukunaga. The commentary tends to run on the dry side as Fukunaga delves deeply into the technical aspects (lighting, locations, etc.) of shooting the film, but he has come prepared with a wealth of information.
The rest of the extras are too short to add to anything of substance.
A Look Inside Jane Eyre (3:42) is a quick EPK-style featurette on the making of the film.
To Score Jane Eyre: Cary Fukunaga and Dario Marianelli Team Up (2:14) is about the music of the film.
The Mysterious Light of Jane Eyre (1:53) focuses on cinematographer Adriano Goldman.
The DVD also features a series of deleted scenes and previews for other Universal/Focus releases.
Ardent fans of the original novel may find that this latest adaptation is missing too much of the source material. However, Fukunaga's film is hardly a Cliff Notes version of Charlotte Bronte's classic. While it would have benefited from a longer runtime, "Jane Eyre" is a compelling take on the Gothic love story anchored by two amazing performances from Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.