Long before there was Team Edward and Team Jacob, there was Team Rochester and Team St. John. Except, where Bella Swan is devoid of anything resembling a personality, Jane Eyre is nothing but: a “willful” girl who’s a hardass in a time when women were little more than property. It’s dangerous to meddle with the Brontes, as generally even more so than Jane Austen, they tend to raise the dander of all the feminist scholarship. Yet, Cary Joji Fukunaga dares, and his version of the classic tale, with a daring interpretation by screenwriter Moira Buffini, is fucking brilliant. While it’s not quite the horror film the trailers are promoting, the film is assuredly darker and more gothic. Bertha Rochester isn’t tearing ass around the manor like a wrathful banshee, lurking around dark corners, but Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre definitely makes for a more artfully crafted and sinister tale of woe. The cinematography is breathtaking, the acting is superb, and the overwhelming gloominess of the narrative is well fashioned. Jane Eyre isn’t just a Victorian romance, it’s about a young and passionate woman coming out of the flames of Hell, and Fukunaga makes this about Jane’s maturation rather than infatuation and as such it’s immensely satisfying. The only problems I had with the film were the same problems that I had with the original material — namely that in the end Jane chooses Rochester. And as Fukunaga’s version is more age appropriate — with Mia Wasikowska playing the titular teen governess — the movie takes on a more cruel and creepy bent, and I loved every goddamn frame.
Rather than starting with Jane’s horrid childhood, the film opens on Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing from Thornfield Hall. She wanders through wide shots of empty landscape, dreary English countryside, alone and weeping hysterically. She ends up in the rain on the doorstep of the Rivers: Mary (Tamzin Merchant) and Diana (Holliday Grainger), and their clergyman brother St. John (Jamie Bell). They take her in and care for her, St. John finding her a position as a small village schoolmarm along with a tiny little home of her own. He asks who she is and where she came from, and Jane lies, and that’s where we see her childhood, in a flashback, like a P.O.W. recalling torture at the hands of his keepers.
As we watch her writhe in the clutches of the Reeds, that’s when Fukunaga shines. Young Jane (Amelia Clarkson) hides behind a curtain as her devious little shit of a cousin John Reed (Craig Roberts) pursues her, singsonging her name as he carries a sword. Jane hides behind a curtain, reading a book on birds, when John happens upon her, snatching it away from her because its not hers. A cruel smiles twists his face before he wallops her across the face with the book, drawing blood. Jane leaps on him like a fierce tiger, only to be restrained and forced by her loveless ghoul of an aunt (Sally Hawkins) into an empty room with a fireplace that belches black sooty apparitions. It’s a horrifying state of affairs, both with the soulless treatment of Jane by Mrs. Reed and when Jane is forced to attend a boarding school where she is whipped and beaten and isolated for her willfulness.
Jane leaves the school and ends up as governess to a young French girl in the care of the mysterious Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Rochester is a bastard, through and through, judgmental and sneering and callous, and Fassbender plays it beautifully against the stern yet stoic fierceness Wasikowska brings to her Jane Eyre. While there are some who swoon at the thought of Rochester and Jane, Fukunaga’s interpretation is closer to my own. Rochester is twice Jane’s age, and so it takes on more of the creepy retail manager eyeing up one of his young highschooler trainees. Poor Michael Fassbender seems destined to play child molesters but fuck if he doesn’t just kill it with a wonderful energy. Jane is sort of whipped around on the currents of the terrible men in her life — because St. John isn’t a catch either. Jamie Bell finally lands himself a worthy role and he and his magnificent sideburns are fabulous as the fusty little clergymen who hasn’t a damn clue about love either. Since they are closer in age, it creates this absolutely incredible love triangle, and my only disappointment is that the text forces Jane to be with somebody rather than nobody as Bronte I’m sure would have loved to do. Considering on once side, she’s got this vibrant and intellectual man to joust with — except for that whole old enough to be her father and got a secret crazy wife hiding in the attic thing — and on the other she’s got this poindexter clergymen offering marriage because who cares about romance, Jane’s kind of got a raw fucking deal here.
The cast is spectacular, rounded out with a killer turn by Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax, a role that Dench seemed born for. To call it cliche would be unjust, because it’s more like she’s embodying the ur version of all Victorian housekeepers everywhere and for years to come. Wasikowska manages to be fragile and yet firm, passionate and yet cold, frightened and yet fierce. You know, like how any inexperienced and constantly abused teenage girl would act. She’s like source of the bloodline that feeds future young heroines like Katniss and Ree from Winter’s Bone. Fassbender nails Rochester, moving from brooding to playful to sneering like a virtuoso on an emotional keyboard. It’s an awesome performance, making a devastating claim for how Jane could actually fall for such a fucking lying assbastard. And Imogen Poots throws down such a whimsically bitchy bravado as Blanche Ingram, she who would have Rochester’s hand. While in some disappointing versions of the film, they use Blanche as a sort of example of Rochester shucking convention for his mousy little unpropertied Jane, here she’s just a spoiled catty fiend who stares daggers any time Jane enters into her eyeline.
From the cinematography, you can tell that Fukunaga is working on the idea that Jane is a caged animal constantly trying to break free. Practically every shot shows her in a window, or walking next to walls or hedgerows. The very framework of the film shows Jane locked in place. Even more devastating are the wide shots, which show emptiness and loneliness with just a tiny pale Jane bobbing into frame. I admit, I was kind of thinking he’d go horror on me, but rather he brings the elements that made Sin Nombre such a knockout. I make my piece knowing in the end that Jane chooses Rochester, that she actively decides to go with what she’s convinced is love, but casting an young girl against a much older actor adds that Victorian element of unease and awfulness that makes it all the more effective. Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre is definitely going to piss off a few purists, and I say god bless him for it. It’s a bold and dark and cruel interpretation and I think it does Bronte’s work justice. Rather than another goddamn period costume piece with lace and petticoats and swelling musical strains, it’s a cloudy and gloomy look at a young girl escaping from a hell she doesn’t deserve and making her own choices. I guess the solace one can take is that Jane’s such a strong woman that she has the freedom to choose poorly.