If there’s one thing that’s inevitable in cinema (beyond more Star Wars merchandise), it’s that there will always be another adaptation of classic gothic English literature.
Jane Eyre has already been the subject of no less than five English language big screen versions and countless TV productions. This latest incarnation, while directed by a Japanese American and starring an Irishman and an Australian in the lead roles, retains its essentially British flavour of repression, social restraint and bloody awful weather.
Orphaned at a young age, a strong willed, forthright Jane Eyre is raised by her priggish aunt (Sally Hawkins) who despises her. When a misunderstanding arises over an altercation with her cousin, she’s shipped off to a cruel boarding school run by the draconian Mr Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney). Leaving after a “thorough” education, Jane gains employment as a Governess for a young French child at Thornfield Hall run by the kindly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Judi Dench).
Eventually the master of the house, Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender) returns. He appears abrupt and rude but is intrigued that the headstrong Jane never backs down even after an intimidating verbal assault. They eventually warm to each other and all seems to be going well until a dark secret threatens their happy future.
Derbyshire has never looked so bleak. Director Carey Fukunaga has shot it in washed out grey, a beautiful yet ultimately barren landscape where the wind howls and briars threaten every step. Interiors are just as bleak: you can practically hear the creaking of the old timbers; this is a house in which the chill goes to the bone.
Performances are excellent across the board and appropriately mirror the stark surroundings. Mia Wasikowska is superb as Jane: her pursed lips and severe attitude belie a woman barely containing the frustration, anger and disdain for her claustrophobic social standing, a stifling world in which the highest a woman could only ever aspire to was subordination.
Michael Fassbender is rapidly rising up the ranks as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading men and with good cause. Here he excels as Mr Rochester, a brooding, sullen misanthrope. Fassbender has a particular way of always smiling with his teeth, so even when he appears happy, it’s the happiness of a tiger waiting to leap. It’s this ferocity which makes Mr Rochester such an intriguing character, one which hints of a dangerous animalism beneath his shiny boots and waistcoats.
As good as he is, it’s difficult not to think that he would be a better fit for the younger Bronte sister’s Byronic hero Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (a new production by his Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold is in the works – a role for which he was originally cast).
Judi Dench is also on predictably good form and it’s actually gratifying to see her take a supporting role which doesn’t threaten to overwhelm the leads with her presence. Jamie Bell is also good as Jane’s adopted brother but is inevitably sidelined for most of the film.
The pace is impressively brisk (even if the running time still clocks in at two hours) but the abridgement does rob It of the emotional punch that its climactic scenes should have. Nevertheless, this adaptation is a classy and well acted piece and well worth every rain-lashed thunderstorm.