Mia Wasikowska, Judi Dench Float on ‘Jane Eyre’

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CHICAGO – Film adaptations of classic literature are often lose-lose scenarios. The ardent admirers of the source often sour on what is left out, and the average filmgoer might wonder what the fuss is about when experiencing a truncated interpretation. There is obvious passion behind the latest adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” with performances that follow that lead.

Director Cary Fukunaga does a sensational job providing a sense of scope and gravity to the oft-filmed tale (over 20 TV/film adaptations according to IMDB). The screenwriter Moira Buffini found a place in the novel in which to anchor flashback scenes, so Fukunaga can compactly tell two parts at once, capturing the essence of the whole story. Mia Wasikowska portrays the title character, lacking a bit of nuance while embracing an age-appropriate aspect of Jane.

In the beginning of the film, Jane is famously seen lost on the moors, floundering towards nowhere. She ends up lost and shattered onto the doorstep of complete strangers. Somehow, the home takes pity on her, and brings her in to live and foster a new school. St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters are Jane’s new family, and through her survivor’s narrative, we are treated to flashbacks of her difficult path.

Although born into wealth, Jane loses her parents at an early age, and at her uncle’s dying request moves into the home of her Aunt Sarah (Sally Hawkins). The cruel aunt treats her like a servant, and eventually banishes her to a boarding school. The school is even crueler that her home situation, as the headmaster is instructed to basically break her. Jane is tougher than her circumstance, and seems to gain strength as her schooling grows more difficult.

Cliff Notes Twosome: Michael Fassbinder as Edward Rochester and Mia Wasikowska in ‘Jane Eyre’
Cliffs Notes Twosome: Michael Fassbinder as Edward Rochester and Mia Wasikowska in ‘Jane Eyre’
Photo credit: Laurie Sparham for Focus Features

After graduating from that atmosphere, she advertises her services as a governess. The ominous Thornfield Manor is her new home, anchored by a moody patriarch named Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Her only ally is the bi-polar Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), who cooly oversees Jane’s eventual romantic closeness with Rochester. The secrets and surprises, both with St. John Rivers and Thornfield Manor, stirs the plot and character of Jane Eyre.

This is a costume drama set in the mid-1800s, which harkens back to the famous 1930s studio executive quote about not doing any more movies where they write with feathers. But Jane Eyre is a beloved classic, just given the number of times it has been redone. The choice of Mia Wasikowska (Alice in last year’s “Alice in Wonderland) to play Jane was on paper a good one. But she takes a one note approach to the character, there is never a feeling of transition through change. It could be choice of how a woman would react to such tragedy at that time, but there was no flavor to this subdued performance.

The second most famous character in the book, the moody Edward Rochester, is distantly approached by Michael Fassbinder. If it was the production’s intention for Rochester and Jane to have little chemistry, then it succeeded. Even in their attempts to coincide, Fassbinder and Wasikowska seem only to waver. Again, it may have been a choice in portraying the era as more cautious and distant in human relations, but with no spark there is no romantic energy.

Leave it to the old pros Judi Dench and Sally Hawkins to add a bit of spice. Hawkins obviously relishes her mean aunt role, and she pours on the vitriol with a psychosis that lasts all the way to the deathbed. Dame Judith is the type of performer we want to applaud every time she appears on screen, and her subtle Mrs. Fairfax again invites the hands to come together. Jamie Bell, who is fast becoming a memorable screen actor, imbues St. John Rivers with an almost perfect naiveté.

The young director Cary Fukunaga (this is his second feature after the Sundance favorite “Sin Nombre”) obviously loves the source material and takes great care in making it present. He creates a sweeping scope, which concurs appropriately with Jane’s epic story. His atmosphere evokes an appreciation for where these characters live, both on-screen and within the lovers of the source novel. Despite some chemistry problems, the characters spring from the pages with a whole essence, and Fukunaga encapsulates this essence with a reverent adaptation.

Nothing Like Dame: Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax in ‘Jane Eyre’
Nothing Like Dame: Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax in ‘Jane Eyre’
Photo credit: Laurie Sparham for Focus Features

Inevitably, there will be comparisons with earlier efforts. Some will say that Orson Welles (in 1943) may be the best Rochester, or the miniseries gave the novel its best realization, but the reason that Jane Eyre keeps getting remade is that every generation can take it out for a spin and give it a new breath of air, for new audiences.

Cary Fukunaga accomplishes this freshening, and proves his mettle in handling different types of stories, with different types of meaning. Both author Charlotte Bronte and her famous character Jane Eyre couldn’t have asked for a better caretaker.

“Jane Eyre” continues its limited release in Chicago on March 18th. Check local listings for show times and theaters. Featuring Mia Wasikowska, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Jamie Bell and Michael Fassbender, Screenplay by Moira Buffini, directed by Cary Fukunaga. Rated “PG-13.” For the HollywoodChicago.com interview of Mia Wasikowska and director Cary Fukunaga click here.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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