There have now been around twenty-seven adaptations of Jane Eyre. Many writers and directors have tried to capture the furious passion and heartfelt emotion of Charlotte Brontë’s much-adored novel. Sin Nombre director Gary Fukunaga at first seemed like an inspired choice for this dark love story, but sadly the resulting picture lacks such radical inspiration. It is not an all-round failure, but for the most part it is dull, dreary and dreadfully underwritten.
Moira Buffini, who wrote the screenplay for last year’s Tamara Drewe, takes a hatchet to the structure of the novel (a highly important feature, if you ask me), opting to tell it in a series of flashbacks. The overall effect is more reminiscent of Damages rather than Brontë.
Mia Wasikowska was dire in Alice in Wonderland, and here she sets about murdering another famous staple of British literature. Her performance as the innocent orphan sent to Thornfield Hall to work as a governess is one-dimensional and bland. The scene where Mr Rochester, the imposing master of Thornfield, confesses his love for Jane highlights her woefully limited acting talent, as she fails to capture any of the churning, fervent drive of Brontë’s dialogue. It sounds as if she’s auditioning for a school play.
Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester is excellent, although the complexity of his performance is restricted by the all-too-restrained script. The drama does move a little quicker when he is onscreen, but this is at the expense of believable characterisation.
Judi Dench crops up a few times to remind us what it feels like to watch a great actress at work. She plays the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, and adds more depth to her small supporting part than any of the other actors manage with the leading roles, and it is through her the few glimmers of humour in the screenplay are allowed to shine.
In terms of atmosphere, the film is brilliant, and it is a shame the central love story is so ineffectually reproduced, as in terms of technical and artistic achievement this adaptation is one of the best. Adriano Goldman’s cinematography is masterful, and brilliantly brings to life Bronte’s descriptive prose. The English countryside hasn’t looked this foreboding since David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations. The sense of dark secrets and repressed desire is wonderfully tangible, or at least it is until the characters open their mouths. Dario Marianelli – a composer well experienced in literary adaptations, having scored Pride & Prejudice and Atonement – also offers a lush contribution. His music draws on the pain and heartache of the character of Jane; something Wasikowska fails to do in her simplistic performance.
Of course, film and television versions of famous books are allowed to be stories in their own right, but his film doesn’t even manage that. I suspect those who haven’t read the novel before seeing this adaptation will either be bored or confused. The non-linear structure gives the film a very patchy and uncertain feel.
Fukunaga’s fractured and rather arty vision of this classic love story doesn’t work. I wish it did, as I like to see filmmakers trying their hands at new and varied works. But I was left unimpressed and disappointed. If you want a definitive screen version, I would recommend the 2006 TV series. The BBC may have backed this cinema feature, but in my opinion they created their masterpiece five years ago. Get the boxset and revel in the all-consuming, forceful passion of Ruth Wilson’s BAFTA nominated performance as Brontë’s heroine. Savour the beautiful screenplay by the wonderful Susanna White. Then watch this film, and see how it compares. For me, it doesn’t even come close.
Jane Eyre (2011), directed by Cary Fukunaga, is distributed by Universal Pictures UK, Certificate PG.