The other day I watched a film I'm sorry to have missed during it's cinema run. Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is a stunning piece of work, amongst the best literary film adaptations I've seen, and certainly the best screen adaptation of a Bronte novel.
Fukunaga makes some interesting decisions with the time-frame of the film, choosing to present the first half of the film chronologically as a series of flashbacks experienced by Jane after she finds herself at the home of St. John Rivers and his sisters Diana and Mary. Rather than seriously altering the mood of the story, however, this actually helps to bring out the spirit of the novel, which Bronte wrote in the style of an autobiography for her heroine. By beginning the film in the middle of the novel, as it were, Fukunaga manages to capture the air of reminiscence we find in the novel without giving away the ending of the story too early, or giving any sense that the conclusion of the tale is fixed, so that no suspense is lost from the turbulent romance plot.
Watching the DVD special features, I noticed some comments about the film focusing particularly on the gothic elements of Bronte's novel. While I did notice a strong gothic strain, however, I didn't feel that it was over-emphasised at the expense of some of the other, more realistic aspects, as sometimes happens with semi-gothic novels like this. It would be easy enough to ham up the horror to shocking Hammer levels, but instead, this film was wonderfully nuanced, showing up the grim and grimy side of life as a poor woman in the early 19th century north. Alongside all the bizarre and ghostly happenings at Thornfield Hall are placed the very real and urgent dangers of sickness, malnutrition, child abuse and neglect, and even (in the remarkably astute warnings of Mrs Fairfax, Rochester's housekeeper) the potential for rich men to manipulate and ruin their female servants. We feel deeply the desperation of the eternally dependent Jane, trapped and isolated by her sex, her poverty and the death of her parents in a dull and oppressive world, too small for her great mind.
The whole film was beautifully shot and intricately detailed. There was a brilliantly shabby and desolate quality to everything: the sets, the scenery, the costumes. Even within the grandeur of the Thornfield estate, things often felt cold, dark, empty and unwelcoming. Viewers are here plunged into the dingy reality of the period, instead of an idealised dream of the past where England is always sunny and stately homes are always bright, buzzing and full of people, as is so often the case with period dramas.
As the title character, Mia Wasikowska draws and compels our attention throughout. I enjoyed her performance in Alice in Wonderland, but this film much more fully showcases her talent and range, which are enough to rank her with the likes of Jennifer Lawrence as one of our brightest new female stars. I didn't actually realise until I saw this film that she's Australian - she's certainly developed a commendable knack for accents very early on. I'm thoroughly excited to see what she does next. Michael Fassbender was the perfect choice for Rochester - suitably commanding and frightening and yet strangely and disarmingly charming. Judi Dench was of course as expert and inspiring as ever - the way she can easily adopt any register from queens to servants never ceases to amaze. The moment where she hugs and chastises the despairing Jane for running away when they are reunited at the burnt out remains of Thornfield Hall was incredibly moving. Despite Rochester's dismissive and obnoxious attitude towards her, Dench's performance shows us a Mrs Fairfax who is thoughtful and intelligent as well as kind, one who, we get the impression, has been a similar victim of circumstances to Jane. Unlike Jane, of course, she is too old now to expect any great change in her fortunes. I was also very impressed by the cast of child actors: Amelia Clarkson and Freya Parks dealt maturely and convincingly with some really dark subject matter as young Jane and her dying best friend Helen, and Romy Settbon Moore captured the easy good nature of Jane's pupil, Adele. It was also a pleasure to spot Craig Roberts again, who did a great job in Submarine and and Becoming Human, however briefly he appeared in this film.
As a measure of the emotional impact of this film, I haven't cried so much at any production of anything since I saw Helen Edmundson's The Heresy of Love in Stratford. If you haven't seen either of these things, you're seriously missing out.