Universal // 2011 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 8th, 2011
A daring new adaptation of a timeless romance.
"You're altogether a human being, Jane."
Even by the standards of the day, it could be honestly said that Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) had an immensely difficult childhood. After her parents died, she spent her formative years with a cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins, Desert Flower) and attended an equally cruel boarding school. She was beaten, mocked, and hated for no legitimate reason during this time; her world has transformed her into a woman both resilient and emotionally detached.
Jane has just received a job working as a governess at Thornfield Hall, owned by the wealthy Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class). Rochester is unmarried, but is responsible for raising a pre-adolescent French girl who is supposedly his offspring. Rochester finds the company of his housekeeper (Judi Dench, Pride and Prejudice) and servants rather dull, but regards Jane's wit and intelligence with no small measure of fascination. As time passes, the relationship between Jane and Rochester develops in a series of unusual ways.
Much like Pride and Prejudice or Little Women, Jane Eyre is one of those classic novels that someone feels a need to adapt every decade or two. The tale has fared rather well up until this point, from the brooding '40s version with Orson Welles to the compelling Franco Zefferelli adaptation starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. Director Cary Fukanaga certainly had his work cut out for him in creating a Jane Eyre that would stand out from the rest of the pack, but he's succeeded with flying colors. Others might have attempted to achieve this by amplifying the tale's melodrama or perhaps finding some way to put a new spin on the story, but Fukanaga distinguishes himself simply by creating a lovingly faithful, exquisitely crafted, genuinely passionate adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's novel.
The core of this Jane Eyre is most assuredly the relationship between Jane and Rochester. That can arguably be said for every version of this story, but Fukanaga emphasizes it by minimizing the time we spend on the other portions of Jane's life (her childhood, her time with Sinjun, her long trek on foot between one place and another) to leave room for moments of personal exploration between the owner of Thornfield Hall and his governess.
The film has found a sublime pairing in Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, both of whom bring new shades to familiar roles. Observe Wasikowska's unwaveringly flat demeanor during the film's early scenes; the manner in which she establishes Jane as a woman who refuses to permit herself to be moved easily. Later, there's a moment in which Jane can barely prevent herself from letting a great big silly grin creep onto her face. It's a very small scene, but Wasikowska turns it into such an exquisitely memorable moment. She also subtly underlines the shades of feminism lurking within the character (an approach that works far better with this literary figure than with her strong-yet-generic portrait of Lewis Carroll's Alice).
Meanwhile, Fassbender creates a Rochester who might very well be the ancestor of Fassbender's character in Fish Tank. Initially, Rochester comes across as condescending and emotionally volatile, but Jane's presence seems to have a stabilizing effect on him. It's a treat to watch the manner in which Fassbender's performance seamlessly slips from casually dismissive to humbly awestruck, and he pulls off the neat trick of allowing us to feel for the character while also underlining his unappealingly cowardly, deceptive side.
The two leads are backed by a very capable supporting cast. Judi Dench (in her little-seen "sweet old lady" mode) is predictably splendid as the kindly housekeeper, sharing a few empathetic scenes with Jane and bringing a much-appreciated sense of warmth to the film. Jamie Bell continues to demonstrate what a gifted young actor he is in his brief turn as Sinjun, so impossibly decent during his early scenes and so frighteningly otherwise later on. Sally Hawkins also makes a strong impression during her fleeting moments as Jane's intimidating aunt.
Like Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, this is a literary adaptation that brings so much feeling to its familiar story. Fukanaga keeps the film's corset strings tight for much of the running time, but allows sharp bursts of emotion to break loose at precisely the right moments. The heart-stopping quality of the film is aided immeasurably by its visual design, as Fukanaga employs natural lighting and a variety of gorgeous locations (try not to sigh aloud when observing some of the nature shots included here). The gently gothic quality of the sets and cinematography is a treat, setting Jane Eyre apart visually from so many other costume dramas.
Speaking of visuals, Jane Eyre arrives on Blu-ray sporting a very handsome 1080p transfer. My theatrical experience with the film was frustrating, as the movie was projected very poorly (the image was too dim and was presented in the wrong aspect ratio) and the sound was muffled. As such, it was a treat to see and hear this fantastic Blu-ray presentation. The level of detail is sublime throughout, save for a few moments that are presented with intentional softness. A couple of darker scenes suffer from excessive noise, but these are also brief. Blacks are deep and shading is excellent (important on a film that relies on shadows and gloomy settings as much as this one), while flesh tones are warm and natural. Audio is also superb, sporting a low-key but nonetheless impressive mix of dialogue, Dario Marianelli's beautiful score (featuring aching violin work slightly reminiscent of Danny Elfman's similarly lovely Black Beauty score) and sound design. The track is a little quieter than average, so you may want to bump up the volume a few notches. Supplements include a commentary with Fukunaga, three very brief featurettes ("A Look Inside Jane Eyre," "To ScoreJane Eyre" and "The Mysterious Light of Jane Eyre") and some deleted scenes. The disc is also equipped with BD-Live.
I do find the moments in which Jane and Rochester comment on each other's mutual ugliness a little odd, as Wasikowska and Fassbender are hardly unattractive human beings (though Wasikowska is presented as a rather plain girl, to be sure). It's an element of the novel that probably should have been ignored with this cast.
Additionally, some viewers may be frustrated by the fact that Jane's religious beliefs have been very marginalized in this version -- the negative aspects of Jane's strict religious upbringing are emphasized, but the character's faith is basically ignored from that point onward. It's not a big issue, but it's one that Bronte purists (not to mention Christian viewers) may find problematic.
Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is a sublime new take on a familiar old story, boasting remarkable performances and dazzling technical qualities. It's one of 2011's best films, and this superb Blu-ray release makes it an essential purchase.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes