I doubt any other literary family has had their work adapted to screen as often as the Bronte sisters. Next to Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre remains a favourite of melodramatic literature of the late 19th century. The story of a young girl, raised with little love and yet capable, intelligent, and full of love herself, has been great fodder for directors and actors alike. Cary Fukunaga is the latest to be seduced by the tale, and his version is narratively faithful, visually stunning, and while perhaps not entirely original in execution, takes great strength lies in the performances of its lead actors, Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester.
For those few who have not read the book (and apologies for possible spoilers,) Jane is rejected by her aunt, accused of being a liar and hard-hearted and sent to live at a rather harsh boarding school. Despite this, she grows into an intelligent and capable woman. At 18, she is sent to be a governess at an isolated mansion with a seemingly rough and discourteous employer, Rochester. There are strange things about in the house, as noises, a fire, and a random stabbing indicate, but Rochester will not reveal the cause. Jane's unmalicious honesty and frank perspective win Rochester's heart, and they plan to wed. But it is discovered that Rochester is already married, and his mad wife lives in attic and is responsible for the evil deeds. Early one stormy morning, Jane leaves, shaken to her core.
And that is where the film begins, in the middle of the book, with flashbacks to the first half.
The film is extremely precise, with every shot, every sofa, every curtain perfectly aligned. Jane and Rochester stand out, as they accommodate this precision, but are obviously not at home in it. The score adds the melodrama to their unvoiced emotions, which can frequently find no other outlet. Wasikowska is quite a revelation; her Jane might be seen as plain, but Wasikowska plays her with quiet hunger, which she keeps contained only until provoked by extraordinary love. I would still argue that Fassbender is far too good-looking for Rochester (who is supposed to be very physically unattractive), but he matches Wasikowska's quiet passion, making their passion and compatibility obvious and inevitable to the audience (if not to the other characters.) Although the actual character of Mrs. Rochester makes only a brief appearance, her presence is felt as a corporeal haunting that forces itself into the air as Fukunaga takes the audience through corridors of cold stone and literal and metaphorical fires of rage. She is as important as the other characters, and Fukunaga is sure that even her invisible appearances have the desired effect.
Fukunaga films this Yorkshire landscape with the same frankness of the characters. When the sun shines, it is beautiful, and when there is a storm, it is brutal. No attempt is made to gloss the scenery nor make it an unreal nightmare. Like the characters, it is real in beauty and brutality. By keeping the story to its essence, and stepping back when necessary to allow his actors the freedom to explore the characters (as oppose to throwing them too quickly into the melodrama, a fault of many a director of period films,) Fukunaga has made a very contemporary and yet quietly pure adaptation.