Last weekend I saw the new version of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. I had very little expectations of getting to watch a film that could do justice to this great love story, and my undersized expectations were not belied, resonating with what this critic says: "We left the movie theater disappointed, affirmed in the knowledge that a perfect Jane Eyre film must be a fantasy."
What's wrong with this film as an attempt to render Charlotte Bronte's novel to the screen?
Perhaps I should point out what's right in it, first. The ages of the main actors seem appropriate. Jane is eighteen years old, Rochester, 35. Wasikowska is indeed 22 but she really looks and acts youthful, raw, fresh and innocent enough to be a convincing Jane. Compare her with former Janes, like Susannah York who was 31 years old when she played the role, or Charlotte Gainsbourg, who, though only 23 at the time, unlike Wasikowska, seems to be too mature and sophisticated for it.
Rochester is only 35 years old, still a young man; yet he is usually played by much older actors, like George C. Scot who was 47, or William Hurt who was 43, when they attempted this feat. Both look and interpret their respective Rochester as tired, jaded, middle aged has-been libertines, father-figures for Jane. That is not who Rochester is. Bronte has gone to a great deal of trouble to depict him as a robust, virile, lusty man, with a furtive, tormented, and wise spirit, and an amazing capacity for insight into Jane's heart and mind, two organs that have been half frozen by the cruelty of her cold and love-deprived childhood. They are intellectual equals, but he is much more experienced in life, with some canny understanding into female mystique. These qualities enable him to understand what it will take to get Jane to fully respond to his mature love, that is, the need to thaw that ice coating that had formed around her emotions. So he devises a trick of awakening her to sexuality by introducing a sexual rival of whom Jane becomes jealous and eventually the feelings kept in check well up at the right moment. Scot's and Hurt's Rochesters are almost over the hill men, much too beaten up by their pasts in demi-monde Paris to convince us that their love for Jane is as much motivated by great sexual attraction as it is by her agile and peculiar mind.
So, in that respect, the choice of Fassbender was felicitous, even though he is too handsome to fit Bronte's description.
No. it's not the casting, or acting, that cause Jane Eyre, the story, to fail. It's the script.
The novel contains a few sequences of events and developments that are pertinent to the development of Jane's character and her relationship with Rochester. The author took pains and time to show us how the two characters gravitate towards one another, how Jane's reserve and shyness are gradually overcome as Rochester engages her mind and spirit. It is the most delightful and satisfying part of the novel, yet the movie zips through it with such speed and little attention to detail that by the time we come around to the proposal scene, we as viewers are somewhat astonished that it is already taking place.
Concurrently, in the novel, the shadow of the wife is hinted at through a series of incidents that occur during the courtship period, for which Jane can find no rational explanation. Yet the film totally fails to convey the eeriness, the sense of foreboding, the mystery. The frightening semi nightmarish scene in which Jane's room is invaded at night and the bridal veil gets torn is ignored. At which point, I became quite exasperated with the whole deal.
Then the main development in second half of the novel, in which Jane (implausibly) finds refuge at the home of strangers who turn out to be her only surviving relatives is, again, discarded. Jane still inherits a large sum of money and divides it among her new friends but the action doesn't quite make sense. It is inconceivable that Saint John and his sisters would have agreed to this arrangement if they had not had some claim over that money by virtue of their relations to the same uncle. In the novel, Jane merely rectifies her late uncle's oversight while in the movie she is turned into a sort of benefactor, a position she would vehemently reject as the motivation for her gesture.
And of course most vexing was the rushed ending, in which Jane is reunited with Rochester. The latter is depicted as blind, though no scars mar his ever handsome face. Bronte deliberately got him to lose part of his right arm in the fire but the movie completely disregards this little, but important, detail. It was just a copy and paste of the 1944 Jane Eyre ending, with Orson Wells and Joan Fontaine. No insight. No uplifting joy. No hint of the humour and sadness that are the staple of the novel's conclusion, when Jane responds to Rochester's question.
"Yes: is it news to you?"
"Of course: you said nothing about it before."
"Is it unwelcome news?"
"That depends on circumstances, sir--on your choice."
"Which you shall make for me, Jane. I will abide by your decision."
"Choose then, sir--HER WHO LOVES YOU BEST."
"I will at least choose--HER I LOVE BEST. Jane, will you marry me?"
"A poor blind man, whom you will have to lead about by the hand?"
"A crippled man, twenty years older than you, whom you will have to wait on?"
"Most truly, sir."
"Oh! my darling! God bless you and reward you!" ”
To be continued, maybe ...