There’s always a temptation to lump Charlotte Bronte into the same “period drama” category as Jane Austen. Although their novels often share similar themes — love against the odds and a woman trying to find her place in the world — they are very different authors, with Bronte being the darker, more socially transgressive of the pair.
Countless productions of Jane Eyre have been produced for cinema and the small screen, and with the young director Cary Fukunaga, there was a opportunity to explore the novel’s many layers, including its subplots on madness, race and gender roles, which have often been neglected in other versions. Instead, the result was a mediocre adaptation that lacked depth.
The film begins on a wet and windy evening with a bedraggled, wandering adult Jane finding shelter with the puritanical but kind vicar, St John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his kind sisters. This bold move to start the film in the middle of the novel provides an interesting and novel viewpoint into our heroine’s journey. From then, Jane Eyre’s childhood years are presented as a sort of flashback, explaining how her unloved, strict childhood has shaped her.
However, the rest of the film is tame, following the main thread of the novel, whereby Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre’s love is threatened by the presence of his mad wife, who he keeps locked away in his castle. Unlike other productions, which have tried to add some dimension to her character, Bertha Mason is denied a voice for the whole film. We know little about her history or why she became mad, and there is no critique of the way she is kept in a sort of asylum within her house. In the novel, there is ambiguity about whether she is a black Jamaican, Creole or white — elements which could have been incorporated into the film to explore the issues of race, colonialism and class. Instead, Bertha Mason is a white, beautiful female, and we know little about her.
Michael Fassbender is perfectly cast as Mr Rochester — dark and brooding with a mysterious glint in his eye, while Mia Wasikowska is brilliant as the plain Jane, and manages to convey her character’s loneliness at Thornfield Hall. However, they both lack sexual chemistry, possibly because it is difficult to recreate the slow-burning attraction between master and governess in a two-hour film. In the five-hour BBC television adaptation, Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson were convincing as the lovers and their burgeoning love could be seen through the flirtation and witty, sarcastic comments exchanged between the pair, which developed as the episodes progressed.
One of the best moments of the book is when the heroine first meets Mr Rochester caked in mud, lying sprawled on his backside by the road, having fallen off his horse — hardly Mr Darcy material. There are many other comedic moments, but the film breezes past them, instead focussing excessively on creating a moody Gothic atmosphere of foreboding and mystery, which runs out of steam by the end of the film.
The film is well-shot, but with such good actors, it had the potential to really question, challenge and explore the themes of Bronte’s original work, opening the story to a newer, younger audience. Andrea Arnold’s production of Wuthering Heights promises to be a thought-provoking version of the text, featuring a black actor in the role of Heathcliff. Instead, Fukuanga decided to stick with the expectations of Bronte purists. This may have been a safe move, but the final product ultimately fell short of previous adaptations.