It’s been five years since I read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in a college British Lit class. Before that, I had seen a couple different versions of the story in movies, including the ’90s film with William Hurt. There’s something about the somber, resilient Gothic heroine that always stuck with me, no matter what media she’s in or which actress is portraying her. In the class, we debated for a couple weeks whether Jane’s relationship with Rochester and her overall actions throughout the novel make her a proto-feminist character or prove the opposite. With Mia Wasikowska, we finally have a Jane Eyre movie that focuses on the amazing strength of its heroine. Oh, and the rest of the cast is great, too.
The story is kept mainly intact: Jane has been treated poorly most of her life, starting with her cousin and aunt’s complete animosity. After spending the rest of her adolescence at a boarding school where any minor offense was considered a sin (and sins were harshly punished), she eventually leaves to becomes a governess for the ward of the moody, dark Edward Rochester. In the ghostly halls of Thornfield, Jane and Rochester feel a growing connection despite both of their pasts and the restraints of society. While the majority of the novel is kept intact — both dialogue and plot-wise — the adapted script begins closer to the end, with a cloaked Jane rushing away from Thornfield Hall on the worst day of her life. During her time with the Rivers family, flashbacks to her childhood weave in and out until we get to her leaving the boarding school, and that’s when the main plot takes over. It’s an interesting way to tell the story, since the audience realizes Jane leaves Thornfield hurt and alone in the first scene of the film.
What works best in this adaptation are the two leads, both in how they are written and how they are portrayed by the actors. I’ve seen Jane played so dully by other actresses before, and yet Wasikowska makes her seem more fleshed out that I expected on the big screen. There is intent in every action, every line that she speaks. Where certain lines sounded submissive in other adaptations, Wasikowska gives them a hint of defiance. You see this especially when Rochester tries to knock her down a peg after their first meeting; he pushes, but she pushes right back — with a hint of a smile on her face, too. She is still more subdued than her younger self (Amelia Clarkson deserves praise as the younger, angrier Jane), but there is a spark in her eyes; she owns every moment of her time on screen. Even when she forgives her aunt, Jane seems to say, “This is just as much about me getting closure for myself as it is about you receiving forgiveness.” She’s my favorite Jane Eyre to date and I can’t wait to see what this relatively young talent has in store for her cinematic career.
That being said, Michael Fassbender was just as commanding as the brooding Rochester. Since he’s playing the sexy younger version of Magneto in X-Men: First Class, I might have had a small bias towards him from the beginning. He plays Rochester as a jerk, but Rochester is universally a jerk, so it works. Fassbender does a good job of becoming more amused when Jane stands up to him. He comes around to her quickly, and the sexual tension also builds quickly. Because of the nature of the story, he and Jane have a limited number of moments together, but Fassbender and Wasikowska use every second to their advantage. The tension is thick every time they’re alone together. Once they finally admit their feelings, we actually get to see some full-on making out from the two of them. It doesn’t hurt that Fassbender is sexy as hell. Actually, when he asks Jane if she thinks he’s handsome and she replies no, all I could think was, “What planet are you on?” Maybe the only complaint I have against his casting is that he is so good looking for the character, but his performance helped me suspend disbelief.
The supporting cast did what they were supposed to do. Mrs. Fairfax was changed a little from how I remember her, but Judy Dench is awesome in every role she takes on. Sally Hawkins is perfect wicked stepmother material as Jane’s aunt, and Imogen Poots embodies every girl I hated in high school as the belittling Blanche Ingram. I was shocked to discover St. John Rivers (who names their son “St. John,” by the way?) was played by Billy Elliot‘s Jamie Bell. I don’t remember Rivers to be so possessive in the book or other films; I’m guessing they made the change so that the “right choice” would be absolutely clear (side note: they also left out the part where the two discover they’re cousins and still seriously consider getting married). That’s probably why they also had her daydreaming about Rochester instead of just hearing his voice.
At only two hours long, they did make some cuts in details. Her childhood is more glanced at than I probably would have liked; her two other cousins have no lines, Helen has just a few minutes of screen time before she dies and Miss Temple isn’t in the movie at all. I get that they wanted to move the story along to the good parts (aka sexy Mr. Rochester), but I could have used a little more time in her childhood. I also wish they would have focused more on the mystery aspect of the story, but that’s just a nitpick.
The other big part cut out is the epilogue. I’m torn about this part. On one hand, the epilogue is all exposition, and I know a lot of fans hate how it ties everything up into a nice little package. On the other hand, where the movies ends leaves a lot of questions for audience members who haven’t read the book. Ultimately, I have to go with the former. Here, Jane ends as a pillar of strength.
I don’t think we can ever definitively say whether Brontë’s masterpiece supports feminism or not. However, in this humble writer’s opinion, this new film does. And it’s a joy to watch at that.