Cary Fukunaga’s new film “Jane Eyre” sets off at a run. Our first view of Jane is not in the cold, confining settings of Aunt Reed’s house or the Lowood School, but at Thornfield, at the moment when Jane gathers her things and bolts out of Rochester’s domain, running away from it and him, through the rocky, overgrown fields as anxious perspiration beads upon her straining face. A beginning in medias res, for sure.
After 27 film and television adaptations (by the count in USA Today‘s review), not to mention the wide currency of Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel, a director approaching the story could count on two things: viewers know the plot almost scene by scene, and many will be looking for something distinctive in the telling. The distinctive entry point for the story that Fukunaga chose proves dramatically effective, especially when it recurs, Groundhog Day-style, in its proper order later in the film. The story jumps back and forth from setting to setting, and so is told out of order on the global scale, but except for Jane’s desperate exit from Thornfield, I believe that the chronological order of events is preserved within settings: at the Riverses’ house, at Lowood School, at Aunt Reed’s, and at Thornfield. This adaptation adds the spice of originality but keeps the main flavors authentic throughout.
Roger Ebert comments on the indispensable atmosphere for Gothic romance: the “costumes, sets, locations, sound design and the wind and rain,” all abundantly present and masterfully set before us in this film. The interiors are convincingly cold and the exteriors threateningly wild. The accents of speech are varied and appropriate–Jane herself speaks with a hint of Irish in her well-controlled voice.
At age 21, but looking even younger than the 19 years possessed by Jane, Mia Wasikowska has already mastered the art of understatement in acting. At times, she is nearly expressionless and one must look for the merest muscle twitch to read her emotions. But look and you will find it. When Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench!) tells Jane that Rochester is returning to Thornfield after one of his sudden, extended absences, she barely begins to smile when her lips fall, almost imperceptibly, at the added intelligence that Blanche Ingram will be among the large party of guests. When Blanche does arrive and play her catty drawing-room scene, she gets almost no attention from the camera. Jane doesn’t look directly at her and neither do we. Why bother, when we know she’ll soon be gone?
Michael Fassbender’s Rochester keeps up a high pitch of “Sturm und Drang”–restlessly active, irritable, and anxious. Despite Jane’s impassive shell, she betrays a stormy luminosity in his presence. I found the attraction between them to be palpable and more physical than is often allowed. Rochester protests again and again that he wants her soul, and that he will not stop till he has extracted it, through every cell of her body. When he begs Jane to stay, in spite of his marriage to Bertha, he clings to her with such force, he draws out from her all the anguish and tears that match his own desolation. I have seen this scene so many times, played haughtily or desperately by Rochester, resolutely or compassionately by Jane, but in this film, I especially felt his acute misery and the terrible pull of her indecision, making it all the clearer that she could not walk out–she had to run.
In my title, I refer to fire as a theme in Brontë and in this film. Fire occurs early and late in the story, both times set by the first Mrs. Rochester. When she sets his bed curtains ablaze, Jane saves her new employer, and their intimacy quickly ratchets up. After Jane leaves, Thornfield finally burns. Rochester can save everyone in the house but Bertha, who falls to her death; he is injured and left blind. His plea to Jane, spirit to spirit, recalls her to him, and their “trial by fire” is ended.
Fire is equally a theme for young Jane Eyre, played with clarity and fervor by Amelia Clarkson. In Mrs. Reed’s “Red Room,” where Jane is locked up as punishment, all her fears reach a fever pitch when black smoke backs up and roars out of the fireplace on its own. Banished to the evil care of Mr. Brocklehurst, headmaster of Lowood School, she is told that rebellious girls, such as she, will spend eternity in the fiery pit of Hell. Jane’s private hell is relieved for a time by the friendship of Helen Burns (yes, Burns), who too soon dies of tuberculosis while sleeping beside Jane, their hands clasped.
Finally (this is, after all, Gothic romance), the “fire” in Jane’s soul never goes out through all her suffering. For many years she suppresses it, she tames it, but she also tends it, hidden from those who would seek to smother it. It blazes out in her speech to Rochester:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you and full as much heart!
And again it flares when she must fight to leave him, fight for the flame of inner truth and selfhood she can’t extinguish even for love, even for him.
Watching this Jane Eyre in a crowded theater on a warm Sunday afternoon, I felt that all these people were here for Jane–drawn not by one particular film (excellent as this one is), but by Jane the character, whose hard life and courageous love story they know so well. Jane is a fictional luminary and also an intimate friend, and she had made another film, so we all just had to be there.
Find more about Jane Eyre at The Fictional 100.
I Won’t Forget “Alice” on Oscar Night, which includes my high praise for Mia Wasikowska as Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.