Under the sensitive direction of Cary Joji Fukunaga, once again, Charlotte Brontë’s most beloved character comes to vivid, thoughtful life on the big screen. With Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 production the last major attempt in the cinema (numerous television versions have also been made: imagine George S. Scott as Mr. Rochester!), Fukunaga’s achievement is all the more notable.
Happily for most, tiresome for a few, the pacing is as leisurely as the novel. Moira Buffini’s screenplay takes few liberties with the source (no ripped wedding veil here!) and weaves the timeless tale of principled love and search for a vrai soulmate with a real feel for the “Britishness” of the situations. (A long-ago forced marriage to improve the fortunes of the father-of-the-groom’s estate being the driver of nearly every scene in the drama). At one with the subject matter and the spectacular English castles and countryside, composer Dario Marianelli has infused the original score with travel music that remembers Vaughan Williams sprinkled with a touch of countryside Holst, featuring stellar, just verging on saccharine, violin solos (Jack Liebeck) and delicate solo piano turns (John Alley) that reward the ear as much as others have crafted a feast for the eye.
Like a kid with an overflowing cookie jar, production designer Will Hughes-Jones has gone all out to put the viewer decidedly in the era. Set decorator Tina Jones has dressed everything from austere, cold in all senses schools for girls, to the magnificent opulence of a party fit for kings, through the wretched results of a fire that sends its source to a welcome grave and, superb in its metaphor—written and seen—causes the man of the house to lose his sight even as he gains his vision. The surviving, somewhat charred, much-loved doll is just the icing on this detailed cake. Adding still more to the mix are Michael O’Connor’s costumes. Jane’s modest frock when summoned away from her duties as governess to the master’s bastard daughter (charmingly done up to a French turn by Romy Settbon Moore as precocious Adèle) lets her radiance shine through the fabric’s simplicity. No worries: when the wedding gown slips its way onto the astonished intended, there’s not a stitch that doesn’t reinforce the notion of “fit for a queen.”
Both Janes are compelling. Playing the younger, Amelia Clarkson demonstrates an ideal maturity far beyond her years, stoically taking undeserved punishments or holding close best friend Helen (Freya Parks) as the dreaded typhus fulfills her pronouncement that “I’m going to God.” Mia Wasikowska has most certainly mastered the rarefied art of detached, repressed emotion as the elder heroine. By holding back so long, when she does leap to a moment of passion, it’s as warm and tasteful as buttery toast—if only the one professing it could take a much longer walk along the path of honesty. An especially fine touch from Fukunaga is his realization of voices heard or “ghosts” imagined. For those unfamiliar with the story, an unexpected reunion between Jane and the former love of her life brings early relief only to be dashed as the wanted image morphs into the vicar who believes he knows better than his hoped for bride (just like his congregation) what’s good for her—Jamie Bell is at his best when revealing St. John Rivers’ selfish disdain for the fairer sex.
Trying to keep her longtime employer’s household together (where it’s rumoured a vampire preys on visitors and kindles deadly flames in the wee hours), Mrs. Fairfax has seen it all, but is selective about sharing everything all that she knows to be true. Judi Dench (taking the role last played by her compatriot Joan Plowright) revels in quiet understatement and is her element when trying to offer advice to Jane, whose head-over-heels mood is no match for the thinly veiled warning.
For once, Michael Fassbender keeps his clothes on (cross-reference below) but grittily lets everything else show boldly through his take on Mr. Rochester. As is now expected and customary, he digs deep into his tortured character and manages the twin feats of repulsing, later endearing viewers to his plight. Unlike, George Clooney’s persona in The Descendants, it is possible to care for the man whose past decisions have produced such tragic results—not least of which: tending a deranged soul rather than seeking expert medical attention; thank goodness those days are far behind us.
Thanks to this beautifully crafted treatment, newcomers and veterans will learn something about the past and more than likely a few things (wanted or not) about themselves. In the first few minutes, Jane is silently, tellingly presented with a crossroads (expertly rendered by cinematographer Adriano Goldman). Will she escape one horror only to find another? It’s a remarkable image that is just one of many so much better “seen” on film than the printed page. JWR