Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is barely contained within the conventions of the Victorian Era. The story moves effortlessly between Christian doctrine, stark feminism, dark Gothicism, and near explicit sexuality. Jane, exquisitely portrayed by Mia Wasikowska, is the archetypal image of an ordinary girl, whose suffering is overcome only by her own perseverance, and is somehow universally identifiable.
Cary Joji Fukunaga handles the formidable challenge of adapting such a beloved piece of western literature with bravery and respect for the original text. The emotional tides of the novel have many hundred pages to change, but the film tackles the condensed story without losing much impact. This is in big part due to the strong performances of the actors – who command the quick emotional changes with full commitment and are, therefore, entirely believable.
The film begins in the bleak, foggy moors that recall the third Lord of the Rings movie. A desperate, breathless Jane is discovered on the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), who nurse her back to life. We learn of Jane’s tumultuous childhood through flashbacks aroused by involuntary memory: the abuse of her callous aunt, cousins, and house staff – the brutal realities of life in Lowood School, the death of her best friend, etc. Bronte’s lengthy descriptions of brutality and misfortune are shortened, but poignant, and still serve in showing how Jane’s strength of character was developed. Another, longer flashback, tells the only tale of passion and hope in Jane’s short life: her love of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). However unlikely Jane Eyre is as a heroine – being plain and poor – Rochester matches her in his unlikelihood as a hero. Rochester is hard, dark, cynical, mean, but shows glimpses of deep wounds that somehow render him loveable. He finds a kindred spirit in Jane – a girl whose “tale of woe” is forcibly suppressed in favor of selfless forward-looking. The mutual identification turns quickly into love, as the passion between the two grows to a palpable eroticism. In the end, we return to the original frame and watch the rest of the story unfold in present time. By this point, we - as the audience - become so connected to the characters, we feel their pain and are genuinely relieved to see their desires fulfilled.