Yes, another one. This is one of those classics which has been done so many times that it’s hard not to come to it and make comparisons – you don’t have that ‘I wonder what’ll happen next?’ buzz (maybe twelve-year-old Magneto fans who don’t know the book and for whom this is their first Jane Eyre will be gripped) but are constantly wondering ‘how will they do?’ or ‘who will play?’ plot developments or familiar minor characters.
This gets into the story by opening with Jane (Mia Wasikowska, much better than she was as Alice) fleeing the house at a dramatic moment two-thirds of the way through the film, then taking refuge with weedy Reverend Rivers (Jamie Bell, gamefully taking the second worst part in English literature, after Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights) and his lovely sisters (Holliday Grainger, Tamzin Merchant) and pondering her life in flashbacks with no voice-over. Oddly, it’s a tamer Jane than the 1943 Joan Fontaine-Orson Welles version (still the adaptation to beat), with a less-horrid aunt (Sally Hawkins) – though young Jane (Amelia Clarkson) being slapped with a book by her ghastly cousin (Craig Roberts) is one of several shock moments littered throughout as if this wanted to up its horror credentials – and even a less nightmarish school, in that little Helen (Freya Parks) dies of sickness which doesn’t seem exacerbated by excessive punishment and Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) is a hypocrite rather than a fringe-paedophile sadist. Later, the film doesn’t go into the assumed or actual parentage of little Adele (Romy Settbon Moore) and even skims over the homicidal, suicidal or promiscuous fits of Mrs R (Valentina Cervi) with a mention that she was ‘unchaste’.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini don’t shake up the text, which means taking at face value melodrama strokes like the unknown uncle who leaves a fortune, the interruptor turning up at the wedding just after the ‘whosoever know just impediment’ line, the weather which conveniently matches the character’s moods, the odd injury whereby Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is blinded in the fire but not disfigured by burns (he does have a nasty beard at the end) and other elements which were cliché even when Charlotte Bronte wrote the thing. It’s the archetypal gothic romance, of course, and the leads go for it – we do get an imagined passionate kiss as Jane hopes virile Rochester rather than pallid Rivers is knocking at her schoolhouse door late at night – while relishing dialogue so good that every screenwriter who’s gone over it has had the wit to leave well enough alone. Besides playing up the dark shadows aspects – Rochester’s horse looming out of the fog, plenty of creeping around the draughty mansion after hours with guttering candles, the sudden outbursts of violence (Mrs Rochester even bites her brother on the neck, like a vampire) – this preserves that slight air of knowing camp by which Charlotte (unlike Emily) uses to establish her superiority to the likes of Mrs Radcliffe (if some lines or developments seem to come from a subtle send-up of the gothic, then they always have). With Judi Dench grounded and credibly Yorkshire as the housekeeper and Imogen Poots as the pretty-pretty but vacuous and vicious romantic rival.
In the last fifteen years, we’ve had Charlotte Gainsbourg/William Hurt, Samantha Morton/Ciaran Hinds (a rare version in which the leads described as plain aren’t played by great-looking actors) and Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens – plus Rebecca Hall as Mrs Rochester in a version of Wide Sargasso Sea; I imagine there’ll be as many to choose from in the next fifteen. The thing is – as with Dracula, The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, A Christmas Carol, Jekyll and Hyde and a few others – they wouldn’t do this over and over again if it didn’t nearly always work. Yes, there’s a Wuthering Heights due soon too.