Filmed amongst the rolling moors of the Derbyshire Peak District (to recall the moors around Haworth in Yorkshire), starring a German-Irish Rochester and Polish-Australian Jane – the new film adaptation of English Charlotte Brontë’s novel might tempt questions about authenticity. It seems that film reviewers look for modern reimaginings in relation to classic texts as much as to closeness to the original. However, in many crucial ways this film remains very loyal to the book, clearly intending to please its many fans rather than challenge their perceptions and showing an authentic eye for the detail of the period and for the core emotions of its characters. Visually, it’s very arresting at times. Light is (as described by cinematographer Adrian Goldman) bounced off the surroundings onto characters’ faces to create a more suffused and gentler effect – capturing the period and constructing a more naturalistic palette. There is subtle expressionism in its use to change mood (e.g. after the fire in Rochester’s bedroom) but this is never allowed to dominate and the emphasis is on the drama and interaction.
Stand it next to the 1943 version (starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine) and some very interesting distinctions and similarities start to appear (avoiding comments on plot structure as this inevitably brings ‘spoilers’). The earlier film expresses the gothic more liberally for example, in the use of lighting, emotion is rendered through the stark contrasts of the black and white and the atmospheric use of key lighting.
Both preserve much of the language – vital because it is through their dialogue that the central relationships (with Rochester and Rivers) live. (The ITV version – with Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton – makes this critical mistake of completely modernising much of the speech, which jars oddly against the period dress). Where Moira Buffini (the book’s adapter) has elided speeches, the underlying tone or the intention in the speech generally remains preserved. I think there is a real attempt to keep the wrestling between person and soul which defines the original – and, specifically, there is one moment where Jane speaks of maintaining her personhood and self-respect. Whilst not directly from the book, this deftly picks out an aspect that is part of its appeal to modern women readers and interpreters.
These are not meant as carping nitpicks of a ‘yes, but is it like the book’ variety (for starters, Brontë herself sets in “___-shire” avoiding realistic references to place and the idea of fidelity to the original literature is much less an emphasis these days). The film, interestingly to me, actually seemed to assume a substantial knowledge in the audience – often apparently playing off what we already remembered.
Director Cary Joji Fukanaga also concentrated on that conundrum of how to bring the central character’s interiority to life on screen (sometimes done through conventional montages) – and Mia Wasikowska (Jane) has a great capacity to render the conflict and her struggle passing across her at crucial moments in her face. Jamie Bell creates a convincingly repressed, and repressive, St.John Rivers. Michael Fassbender delivers the Byronic hero with a tortured soul, looking properly dissolute. There have been criticisms of a lack of chemistry – and there is something, for me, about the lack of close-up and two shot that I want to think about – creating a distance that emphasises her independent resistance of him more than her seduction? There was an occasional dramatic emphasis on his potential danger (a gothic touch) but generally (and this is despite aspects of the marketing) the film seemed to move much more towards the picaresque journey of its central character – her coming of age – rather than move towards a genre style.
This has been described as an outsider’s viewpoint on Jane Eyre, made by the director of Sin Nombre (2009) and it certainly has a clean, unfussy visual style that de-emphasises the traditional pleasures of the costume drama (BBC Films appears as a producer. No immediate info re budget but it does not appear lavish or beyond $20 million? Focus Features – the U.S. ‘Indiewood’ company is also involved). In fact, textures are used dramatically – the moment of the wedding dress arrival used very effectively to communicate more about characters than an opportunity to drool. It has a freshness of perspective in its naturalism – from the Japanese-Swedish Californian director – which places it alongside the modern versions of the literary adaptation such as Pride and Prejudice (2005), with a soft Byronic-style hero at its core (for its modern female audience). It’s the early notices for the girl from Kent’s Wuthering Heights that suggest where a taste for more radical reinvention might be found (See reviews from the Venice Film Festival of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights).