On taking too many liberties with ‘Jane Eyre’ (and too few with Michael Fassbender)

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Still from Jane Eyre. ()
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Apparently, it's not hard to make a Jane Eyre movie. But it's hard to make a good one.

The classic book, by Charlotte Brontë, has a creepy, supernatural element that translates awkwardly to the big screen. Film-makers either throw up their hands at some point and say to themselves, Oh, what the hell, let’s just pretend Charlotte Bronte is Jane Austen and have everyone rattle their tea cups and step daintily over cobblestones, or they pour on the gloom so heavily that Mr. Rochester becomes a King Lear-like figure, and the unfettered eroticism of the book is lost. The book has been brought to the screen (large and small) more than 20 times by now, and there’s a new version opening today, directed by Cary Fukunaga, starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester.

The story is well-known to most anyone who has ever taken an English literature course. It is a first-person narrative, taking us from Jane’s loveless youth and leading us through her brutal schooling, until she gets the governess position at Thornfield Hall, owned by the imposing and mysterious Mr. Rochester. Fukunaga messes with the structure (the screenplay is by Moira Buffini), splitting up the chronology of the book so that we start with Jane Eyre fleeing from Thornfield Hall, a lonely weeping figure staggering across the lonely moors (this episode comes three quarters of the way through the book).

It’s a bold way to begin, thrusting us into the climax of the story with no explanation, and Wasikowska, lying on her back on a rocky plateau, sobbing, is our introduction to the downtrodden and mistreated (yet fiery-spirited and independent) Jane Eyre. The present-Jane, fearful and heartbroken, finds shelter with a rector’s family, and through her recovery, the story launches us back to her beginnings as a child (Amelia Clarkson). When Mr. Rochester finally appears, a galloping black-cloaked figure in a haunted foggy wood, we are ready for him. Jane has been making her way toward him all along.

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The love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester is unique. You would never find either of these characters strolling into a Jane Austen novel. She appears in his home to teach his young ward (a French orphan), and he takes some kind of strange shine to her. He has no sense of the differences in their stations. This makes him captivating, but also a little bit off, morally. If there were an HR department at Thornfield Hall, he would be called in for sexual-harassment training.

Charlotte Bronte captures a very specific dynamic in her book (Mr. Rochester is a very weird man), and the two scenes in which Wasikowska and Fassbender sit and talk by the fire, when they have their first conversations, are lifted almost word-for-word from the book. They are an absolute thrill to watch. Jane is no shrinking violet, although she has zero experience with men, and almost no experience with casual conversation. But she can hold her own.

Wasikowska, delicate and yet firm-looking, with brown braids looping down the side of her face, looks strikingly like the few images we have of Charlotte Bronte. With every expression that flickers over her face, we feel the eruptions of uncertainty and pride and desire doing battle within her. Meanwhile, Fassbender sits back in his chair, gloriously redolent and languid, comfortable in his own skin, but with a flicker of something else in his eyes. An ache of loneliness. The women he has known thus far have been French floozies or elegant, teasing English ladies. He is discontented with all of them. He yearns for something more.

As I said, there is a supernatural element to the book, not to mention the truly Gothic horror of a madwoman literally locked in an attic, and a demoniac laugh echoing through the house in the dead of night. The book ends with a literal shout of anguish across the space-time continuum: all boundaries, including geographical ones, disappear. Love in Jane Eyre is not domestic. It cannot exist in a parlor with clattering tea cups. It is wild and passionate, agonizing and glorious, and when your lover calls out to you in his time of need, even if you are miles away, you will hear.

Unfortunately, Fukunaga deals with this film-making challenge by downplaying this aspect of the book, with the result that the film fails to achieve the book's affecting weirdness. Still, something of that dynamic does exist, in the strange interactions between Rochester and Jane. He is drawn to her. He can’t seem to stay away. She keeps trying to set boundaries, and he finds himself unable, again and again, to respect them. It’s a matter of chemistry, pure and simple.

In the book, there is one unforgettable scene in which Mr. Rochester has a bunch of guests over for a party. He insists that Jane join the party, even though she doesn’t have evening wear, and she feels uncomfortable. At one point, Mr. Rochester disappears, and it is announced that a gypsy-woman has arrived and is going to tell each guest’s fortune. Jane is led in to see the veiled gypsy-woman, who then proceeds to interrogate her about how she feels about her employer, Mr. Rochester. Jane fumbles her replies, but Jane is not a dissembler. She tells the truth.

Naturally, it turns out that the gypsy-woman is actually Mr. Rochester in disguise. He had created this whole crazy plan so that he could find out how Jane felt about him. It is his equivalent of passing her a note in Health class that says “Do you like me? Check Yes or No.” It’s a completely deranged episode, and reveals him as the oddball that he is. Fukunaga has not included this very important scene, and the film suffers for it. By leaving it out, he deprives the audience of that essentially strange part of Mr. Rochester’s already twisted personality. It’s a mistake.

It's somewhat harsh to make judgments based on opportunity-cost, reviewing what is not there as opposed to what is. But maybe that's the risk you assume when you take on a well-known work of literature. We know the scene was there.

Mr. Rochester went to the trouble of putting on a gypsy costume and a veil and pretending to be a woman so he can get Jane to confide in him, about him. That's what makes him so specific, and unlike anyone else, anywhere, ever. Without this moment, Rochester becomes a run-of-the-mill depressed Byronic hero.

Despite this one drawback (and it is a major one), the film, by focusing on the small interactions between the two, the details of their eye contact and behavior, stays grounded in the reality of these two famous characters. I knew them well from my times reading the book, and I recognized them here.

Judi Dench plays Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper at Thornfield Hall, who probably knows more than she is saying, and Sally Hawkins has a terrific cameo as Mrs. Reed, the vicious woman who raised Jane. But this is Fassbender’s and Wasikowska’s movie, as it should be. Wasikowska has had quite a year, what with playing Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Joni in The Kids Are All Right, and here she brings something completely new to the table, announcing her as a major player. Fassbender smolders and grins, gives her piercing glances across crowded rooms, and explodes in anger when he doesn’t get what he wants. He’s sexy and convincing, and is almost, almost, the Mr. Rochester of the book. If only he had gotten to dress up in drag.