Since 1934, there have been no less than ten film adaptations of Charlotte Bronte's classic 1847 opus "Jane Eyre." Do we really need another retelling? Moreover, does the story still hold much water for audiences living in the twenty-first century? The theatrical trailer that studio Focus Features created for the movie suggested this one might actually bring something new to the table, playing up the gothic and supernatural elements that lie around the fringes of the novel. Clever marketing, indeed, but it turns out to also be a bold-faced deception. Were the 2011 version of "Jane Eyre" to have delved into darker, more dangerous waters, it would have been a slight departure from the source material, but at least would have been something different. As an enduring work of literature, "Jane Eyre" warrants its steadfast place in history. As a motion picture, it comes off as a trite soap opera flitting around the same basic conflicts and conventions as just about every romance released these days.
Weary, exhausted, and without much more than the clothes on her back, Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) flees across the English countryside and is taken in by young clergy St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters. Grappling with a major life decision, her varied past is gradually revealed. As a child, the orphaned Jane (Amelia Clarkson) lived with her late uncle's family, mistreated and unaccepted by the lot of them until she was sent off to Lowood School for Girls. Several years later, a grown Jane gets a job as the governess of sprawling Thornfield Hall and strikes up a friendship with the master of the estate, the gallant Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Their flirtations soon turn to love and a marriage proposalsomething that the kindly Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) disapproves of. Jane, having always thought of herself as plain, is beside herself with happiness at the impending nuptials. Then the other shoe drops when it is revealed that Rochester is already married to the mentally insane Bertha Antoinetta Mason (Valentina Cervi), whom he has kept hidden away at Thornfield for the last fifteen years. Is Jane willing to defy common law and her own moral stance to be with the man she undoubtedly loves?
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (2009's "Sin Nombre"), "Jane Eyre" is rooted in an old-fashioned frame of mind dictated by the period in which it was written. Rochester is possessive of Jane"I must have you as my own," he saysand she, in turn, is prepared to make a lifelong commitment to the first man who pays her attention. At the same time, one can see how Bronte's novel has been one of the obvious blueprints for modern love stories that still incorporate the same basic twists and conflicts. The reveal that Rochester is married to someone else has been borrowed too many times to count, while even the concept of hiding away a sick wife in the attic of a mansion was retold in an early-'90s storyline on daytime soap "All My Children." Indeed, would there even be such a thing as Harlequin romances without "Jane Eyre?"
Watching the film, the thought occurred that the narrative is not really concerned with its title figure's trials and tribulations so much as it is an overwrought Victorian sudser more interested in soaking up the details of its lurid, if decidedly chaste, love affair. Save for being a comment on the era in which it is set, it is fairly straightforward and rather shallow. There is not much substance to the relationship between Jane and Rochester. It is crucial, then, that the actors in any one adaptation share a certain amount of chemistry. Without being involved in anything steamier than a kissand what a kiss it is, set against the backdrop of an impending storm, wind swirling around them and the sounds of thunder approaching as the sun still shinesMia Wasikowska (2010's "The Kids Are All Right
") and Michael Fassbender (2009's "Inglourious Basterds
") dance with each other through the words they speak, leaving the viewer waiting desperately for the moment to come when they confirm their reciprocal feelings. Even if depth is lacking in their courtship, the performers make their passion, boiling just beneath the surface, seem very real. Separately, too, they're quite good. Dressed and styled down, Wasikowska makes an ideal Jane, while Fassbender is every bit as dashing and smoldering as Rochester should be. The rest of the cast are dealt lesser hands, with Jamie Bell (2011's "The Eagle
"), as St. John Rivers; Judi Dench (2009's "Nine
"), as Mrs. Fairfax, and Sally Hawkins (2010's "Never Let Me Go
"), as Jane's spiteful aunt Mrs. Reed, all underused.
There is no doubt that "Jane Eyre" has been an influential work in the annals of fiction, Charlotte Bronte's novels holding the same lingering, centuries-long impact as William Shakespeare's plays. For this latest cinematic treatment, however, a handsome production with elegant cinematography, art direction and costume design can only go so far in a subjectively meager period piece. Largely bereft of creativity or even a speck of courage to deviate off the path of the norm, this "Jane Eyre" feels strikingly unnecessary. Why watch the same tale spun for a tenth time when you could be watching one of the previous nine?