To Eyre is Human… ‘Jane Eyre’
It goes almost without saying that any period drama in which the BBC has a hand is going to look spectacular, and Jane Eyre is not only no exception, but perhaps a new bench-mark for such things. Though the sets are less baroque than in other adaptations of similarly-styled works, the costumes somewhat less ornate in their finery, the detail is exquisite and the cinematography brings a bucolic splendour to the north of England which in places look almost painted. The moors and marshes are tinged with an uncanny unreality of impossible history, something grander and more fitting for the story that is being staged than the real world could hope to be. In a manner which befits both the beauty and the relative sparseness of the setting, the score is similarly minimal, characterised often by an absence which allows the ambience of the mise-en- scène to dominate. Where there is a score, a string-quartet and piano are used to delicately pick out and highlight moments in the story, neither too incidental to make any difference to the experience or so heavy-handed as to interrupt the film.
Moving from the score to the cast, since there’s only one off-key note between the two, the film maintains its typifying polish. Mia Wasikowska, previously underserved by the weak script and journeyman direction of her most famous leading role, is excellent here. Jane Eyre, a character whose deep and justified misery could easily see her played as unremittingly desperate, is instead a strong figure despite her damage, maintaining her composure and eking every small pleasure and every smile from her life rather than being broken down by events beyond her control. Of course when she is, temporarily, rendered utterly distraught, the waves of grief are awful and devastating to behold. Michael Fassbender, similarly excellent as a man whose circumstances have embittered him, would share equal status and an equally favourably assessment of his handling of some incredibly poetic, though not always naturalistic dialogue, if not for the slight tendency for his accent to slip during the most impassioned moments of his performance. The cast is rounded out with excellent supporting roles from Judi Dench, as watchable as ever as a gentle comic foil for Fassbender’s bluntness, and Jamie Bell as the upright and charitable St. John Rivers, nearly vibrating with righteous vitality and a clergyman’s understanding of romance.
In an act of sympathetic mercy, the occasional issue of Fassbender’s wandering brogue is minimised by the emphases the adaptation makes in compressing the timeline and altering the tone that the original text offers. The climactic fire at Thornfield and, later, the wedding are assumed and implied respectively. In fact even Charlotte Brontë’s most iconic image, that of the first Mrs. Rochester locked, mad and raving from her tower, is underplayed, made first an ominous presence and later the living embodiment of Rochester’s terrible secret, his terrible guilt. These changes, though ardent protectors of Bronte’s work may argue dramatic, are not omissions on the part of the screenwriter Moira Buffini or the director Cary Fukunaga, more a careful dampening of the book’s more performative dramatic peaks in order to present the emotional life of Jane Eyre against a more muted and even backdrop.
The qualities that define Jane Eyre as a protagonist also define Jane Eyre as a film, as the steadiness and stillness of the shots and score change as a mirror to Mia Wasikowska’s performance. Her desire for contentment and for pleasure, buried close to the surface of the composure by which she keeps a rein on the privations of her past, is shown in the ease with which the film slips into utilising colourful, soft-focus shots, held loosely and framed casually as her idealistic hopes and romantic dreams are stirred, all without forcing their effect to the fore or dominating the film’s aesthetic. It is, as I’ve already said, a beautifully made, compelling and confidently executed film, and even those usually wary or uninterested in period drama would be well-advised to broaden their horizons and make an exception for this rather remarkable piece of cinema.