Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester, does follow Charlotte Brontë's book quite faithfully, although not in the same chronological order. While the novel has a lineal narrative, the film relies on flashbacks, seamlessly woven into the timeline.
What Fukunaga and Moira Buffini, the screen writer, did, very intelligently, was to introduce us at that moment of the story when Jane runs away from Rochester's house, after having been deceived, after suffering the humiliation of a promised marriage which could not be, in despair after learning, and having seen, his imprisoned wife. We see her running, running, it is raining, raining, she is falling, her face hitting the muddy ground, crying, crying, until she finds refuge in the Rivers' home (Jamie Bell as St. John, Holliday Grainger as Diana, and Tamzin Merchant as Mary) . This scene is followed by the first flashback to her childhood, when the child Jane (Amelia Clarkson) reacts angrily to the abuse suffered under the hands of her cousin, John Reed (Craig Roberts).
By introducing us to these two key dramatic moments, the story develops in a circular fashion, returning to this point by the end of the film, allowing us to reflect in Jane's journey. More importantly, they highlight one of the core themes of the story, that of the betrayal of Jane, first as a little girl by her aunt, Mrs Reed, and her family, and then, as a young woman inexperienced of the ways of the world, by Rochester (a splendid Michael Fassbender, sensitive under a mask of strength, yet psychologically playing games with her, powerfully conveying the attitudes and rights of the lord of the manor), lured into a path that could not be. This theme of betrayal is repeated later on, when her benefactor, St. John Rivers, whom she has accepted as a brother, tries to force her to marry him and be a missionary's wife in China.
This lack of experience of the ways of society is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why she was defined as “plain”. Mia Wasikowska conveys marvellously well that sense of a young woman, inexperienced but possessing an inner conviction of her worth, of her place, which is more powerful, at the end, than the graces of a society lady.
Wasikowska's Jane is no longer, it can no longer be, an icon of feminism. Fukunaga's and Buffini's interpretation of the Brontë novel have lifted that heavy baggage, forced onto it by a 20th century sensibility. On this sense, the film is, perhaps, closer to the spirit of the book than previous versions. When Jane Eyre was published, in 1847, it was not possible for the author to articulate a contemporary feminist discourse. This Jane does not pretend to advance the cause of womanhood, this Jane is doing no more than carving for herself a place in the world, a place she righteously believes she deserves, not necessarily as a woman, but as a human being. She does not pretend to subvert patriarchy, or a social order, it is significant that Charlotte Brontë gave her the fortune of a long lost uncle, therefore devolving her a position in society from which she had fallen. This Jane is not a revolutionary, or feminist icon. She is a 19th century heroine, not a 20th century one.
The world view that the author articulates is from the point of view of a girl, first, then of a young woman, within a patriarchal society. That sense is clear, both in the book and the film, when Mrs Fairfax (splendidly played by Judy Dench), dispels Jane of any notion that she was the lady of the manor, she being no more than the house keeper, although related to Rochester, when Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to be young Adelè's (a gracious Eglantine Rembauville-Nicolle) governess. By writing this is not my intention to demean such feminist discourses, far from it, what I am saying is that it is not appropriate to read the past through the prism of contemporary cultural, political, social, economic and artistic concerns.
Some people have objected to the casting of MIa Wasikowska as Jane, on the grounds that she is too beautiful, that she is not plain enough. I thought that, particularly at the time when the first teaser trailer was released, that all these objections were wrong. Is Mia too pretty to play the part of plain Jane? Some people would say, yes. I think that she has a kind of flexible beauty, that she can be both beautiful and plain. Re-reading the book, it is clear to me that, whilst Charlotte Brontë defines Jane as "... you were no beauty as a child", that is not the same that saying she was ugly. The regime of the educational establishment were she grew up meant that her manners, appearance and clothing were worked out to be plain, they may have been plain by the expectations of the upper class society at the time, the description of the character was done with a 19th century sensibility. Jane may have not possessed the conventional beauty expected, or associated, with the landed gentry, she may have not dressed like the ladies of such society, or coiffured herself as such, her features have been described as being “irregular”. What does that mean? Canons of beauty change over time, indeed in the past few years they have moved here in Britain. The book was written in the first half of the 19th century, Jane's plainness was defined within the idea of beauty of that time. Would she be considered plain nowadays?
I think that Mia Wasikowska has managed to pull a very believable and strong Jane Eyre, she has managed to portray herself as a plain woman, in spite of her natural beauty, although I have read reviews of Alice in Wonderland describing her as an “insipid blonde”, whatever that does mean. Mia has a complexion which I can only describe as being flexible, like casting plaster she can mould, that she can sculpt, in any way she chooses to. There is a resilience, a strength, under this apparently “insipid blonde” exterior, as a critic defines her when she played Alice in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.
Fukunaga and his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, have managed to recreate the ambience, the atmosphere, the desolation of a Yorkshire of the 1850s, an extremely believable image of that world. I was shivering when watching those dark night winter shots, when Jane, as the mistress of St. John Rivers' school, spent her nights in that solitary snow bound schoolhouse, or feeling the rain on my face when she was running away from Rochester's house; or the sun caressing her and Rochester on those happy moments in the midst of a Yorkshire summer, when, for a brief moment, the impossible seemed reachable.
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screen writer: Moira Buffini
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench.
Trailer and stills © Focus Features.