There is a fundamental problem with adapting Jane Eyre into film: Most people know what’s in the attic. To counteract the English Lit 101 plot, the movie has to make you invest in the characters so that you dread what you know will befall them.
At the very least, filmmakers need to make that attic creepy.
In the latest adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) abandoned character development for the Cliffs Notes approach.
The movie hits all the beats of the story: Jane (Mia Wasikowska: The Kids are Alright) is orphaned and bequeathed to a rich, uncaring aunt who lets her son abuse the ward. When Jane decides to fight back, she’s sent to a religious academy that is even more unfeeling and abusive.
Jane finally gets a taste of independence by taking a job tutoring a French ward at the deserted Thornfield Manor.
What could possibly happen to a young girl in a dark gothic manor?
As it turns out, not that much. Jane hates the isolation, longing for intellectual stimulation and freedom.
When master of the house — and world-class brooding soul — Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender: Jonah Hex) returns, Jane finds a spark. As the couple slowly come together, Mr. Rochester seems even more tortured by his new relationship.
It probably has nothing to do with the random fires and violent attacks happening throughout Thornfield.
That’s all the plot you’ll need to pass your high school English exam. And that’s the problem with the film. Instead of examining the characters or heightening the tension before the big reveal, the film just recites the story like a bored student, and rolls the credits.
Wasikowska especially seems to portray the abbreviated version of Jane. She mopes admirably, but there’s no fire to her Jane, who seems like a defeated person throughout the story. What initially attracts Rochester in the book is Jane’s oddness, her intellect and drive for equality. Their conversations are the cornerstone of the relationship. In the film, Rochester must be attracted to sad little waifs who barely speak.
Dame Judi Dench is wasted in a cameo as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax. In fact, her presence is so brief, one wonders if she was simply walking by the set in period costume and volunteered to read the lines.
Fassbender does admirably with Rochester’s tortured soul but seems uninterested in capturing his wit and sardonic nature. In a rather interesting interpretation, Fassbender makes Rochester less deceptive. The approach makes the character more sympathetic, but it takes some of the sinister nature of that creepy attic.
And about that attic.
Fukunaga doesn’t build any tension for the big reveal. There’s no random laughter burbling through the halls at night. No strange unearthly visitors to Jane’s room. In essence, Fukunaga says you know what happens, so I’m not going to waste time setting it up when I have 200-plus pages of plot to cover.
It’s a shame, since his one dabbling with the mysterious door behind the tapestry is the most tense and interesting scene in the film.
The biggest fault of Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is that it clearly wasn’t made for fans of the novel. It offers nothing new or interesting to those who dream of Thornfield or spend hours deciphering the motives of Rochester and Jane. But if you want an easy C on your upcoming English exam, this is a serviceable adaptation.