Cary Fukunaga’s new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic is beautifully shot and acted, but a bit pointless.
For those of us who went through school with a TV-VHS in every classroom, the book-to-film adaptation will always have a special place in our hearts. After drudging through chapter after chapter of Hardy or Dickens, the immortal words ‘We’re going to watch the video now’ brought more joy than a non-uniform day and an unscheduled fire alarm combined. Not that they were entertaining, far from it, but it was a damn sight better than reading the book.
Of course, as you get older you begin to understand the value of the literature that school subjects you to, yet it is still very true that most book-to-film adaptations function as little more than convenient summaries of the text. Directed by Cary Fukunaga, the latest version of Jane Eyre is a perfect example of this. While it is a beautiful retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s nineteenth-century classic, its inability to bring anything new to the table makes it a somewhat pointless exercise.
The prospect of a new Jane Eyre adaptation is pretty underwhelming. Not only has it been adapted for film over a dozen times, but it has produced four BBC television series and even a graphic novel. Along with Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist, it has become one of those projects which filmmakers take on compulsively, each decade producing at least a couple more adaptations to throw on the pile.
Needless to say, it’s been done to death, so why have another crack at it? With this reincarnation Fukunaga has attempted to be as true to the original as possible in order to create the definitive film version. This may seem like a tall order, but on the whole he does succeed.
Where many adaptations end up looking like filmed stage plays, in which little attention is paid to the expressive capabilities of the medium, this film at least remembers it’s a film. Whilst Moira Buffini’s script is very faithful to the novel, it resists lifting extensive pieces of dialogue verbatim, allowing Fukunaga the space to tell the story visually. The sort of imagery he serves up is pretty predictable; gloomy skies over autumnal woodland etc, but even this small amount of visual flair is effective in creating the sense of isolation which runs throughout the novel.
Along with Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë’s work is often thought of as a touchstone of giddy sentimental romance, and whilst it would be easy to pander to this misconception, Fukunaga’s decision to attend to the novel’s darker overtones makes his film one of the more balanced and faithful adaptations. Whilst Jane and Rochester’s relationship is undoubtedly the crux of the story, Fukunaga rightfully highlights the shared feelings of loss and regret which brings them together.
Whilst Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester are two incredibly challenging characters, Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender bring a restrained intensity to these roles which lends itself well to Fukunaga’s realistic rendering of the novel. Where many actors have leaned towards melodrama, Fassbender and Wasikowska’s straight-faced performances masterfully convey the seething, unspoken passion which defines Jane and Rochester’s love affair.
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Jane Eyre is indeed a well-worn tale, but by taking a small amount of artistic licence, Fukunaga manages to recapture the intensity of Brontë’s novel. The film begins two thirds into the original story, with Jane fleeing Mr Rochester’s estate, the action then skips back and forth in time until we arrive back where we started. Whilst this is only a small narrative adjustment it helps to recreate the suspense of the original by disorienting us within the story.
Graced by an outstanding cast and an inventive screenplay, Cary Fukunaga has produced a faithful yet taut version of Charlotte Brontë’s 164-year-old novel. But for all the inventiveness and delicacy with which he transfers Brontë’s words to celluloid, it’s difficult not to feel slightly underwhelmed. His devotion to the source material is admirable, but this refusal to bring anything new to the story means it is likely to remain just another big-budget adaptation which will be instantly forgotten as soon as the next one comes along. This film is much like a piece of flat-pack furniture: while one is to be commended for constructing it exactly as per the instructions, with no remaining pieces, it’s still not all that impressive.
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We’ll be debating these issues at the next session of our spiked drinks events at Portcullis House in London on Monday 3 June at 6.30pm. Find out more here.