I sometimes forget that the Gothic novel is one of the roots of the horror movie, usually when I'm watching some stolid, well-costumed, Masterpiece Theater-style movie adaptation. These adaptations are so rarely filmed with an eye toward terror. Filmmakers prefer, instead, to pump up the romance elements or the drama or the respectability of great literature. Take a look at William Wyler's version of Wuthering Heights if you want an example, and contrast it with Hitchcock's Rebecca (Hitch knew the value of terror). So it's a bit of a surprise to me that so much of Cary Fukunaga's 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre embraces the terror. It keeps the romance, sure, but it also casts Thornfield Hall, with its madwoman in the attic, as a great haunted house full of haunted people and things that go bump in the night.
Fukunaga's film is largely faithful to the book. It compresses things, as it must, but it hits the plot highlights like a pro. Jane Eyre is an abused young woman who is cast out of her childhood home by a cruel aunt who accuses her of being a liar. She's taken in at a school for girls where the sadistic headmaster beats her and where her best friend dies of tuberculosis. She takes her education ("I've had a thorough education," she says) and takes on a job as the governess of a child at Thornfield Hall, working for the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, and the mysterious absent owner, Mr. Rochester. When Mr. Rochester returns home, he becomes smitten with Jane and endeavors to marry her, but can't because his first wife, quite mad, is imprisoned in the attic. She escapes from time to time to wage mischief and violence. Crushed by the revelation, Jane flees Thornfield and is taken in by the Reverend Saint John, who sets her up as a schoolmistress and falls for her himself. Jane still loves Rochester and lets the reverend down as easy as she can. Meanwhile, she discovers that she is heir to a fortune. She returns to Thornfield Hall only to find it burned to the ground, Rochester maimed by the fire, but widowed. They can marry now.
Fukunaga gets the mood of this exactly right. Filming mostly in winter, and using bare trees as a dominant motif, the filmmakers create exterior shots that occasionally look like they were painted by Caspar David Friedrich. There's an overarching mood of melancholy over the whole movie, and when the scenes move indoors, they're set in candle-lit gloom, where mysterious noises in the dark conjure terrors. This part of the movie is usually lit by ambient candlelight or firelight. The filmmakers have chosen only these light sources by which to film, a la Kubrick in Barry Lyndon. The second act of the movie creeps away like a right proper ghost story, and a good one, at that. The gloom of the night will do that. Although it's not used in the movie, the trailer for the film tips the filmmakers' hands along these lines when it includes a snippet of Goblin's score for Suspiria.
All of this comes after a first act in which horrid things befall Jane as a child. Jane Eyre has that peculiar cruelty to children that so fascinated Victorian audiences, where abuse is intended to build character and is something to be overcome rather than something that scars children. Jane is an avatar of the strong, moral woman who becomes so to spite her abusers. When she goes back to see her aunt, Mrs. Reed, on her deathbed, she's rising above whatever resentment she might feel to fulfill what she sees as an obligation. There's no hint that she wants to throw her having made good in her aunt's face. Jane is sometimes moral to a fault. The scenes at Lowood School for girls early in the film are high on the creep factor, too, it should be added. Certainly, the sadistic Mr. Brocklehurst is a monster, played with wide eyed villainy by Simon McBurney. If he had a mustache, he might have twirled it. There's a certain amount of horror in the scene where Jane's friend, Helen, dies in the bed next to her, too.
While I'm kind of tuned to find horror in movies when I can, Jane Eyre has more on its mind than that. Like the novel, it's a moral tale and a romance, where love conquers all against all odds. The relationship between Jane and Rochester is the center of the novel and the movie and here, I have to admit that in this regard, Kate Beaton has ruined the Bronte Sisters for me.
Oh, sure, this movie stacks the deck by having Michael Fassbender play Rochester, and let me tell you, Fassbender was BORN to wear the men's fashions of the late Romantic era. This was a high point of men's fashions and when this movie wins its inevitable Academy Award for costume design--a deserved award, I'll tell you right now--it will be because Fassbender cuts such a magnificent figure in these clothes. The actor is so damned charming that you almost forget that Rochester is kind of a monster and you wonder why Jane goes back to him at the end of the movie. Love's like that, I guess. Mia Wasikowska, for her part, underplays Jane to the point where you wonder what Rochester sees in her. She's a plain, unremarkable girl, she tells him (and us), and so she is. Part of the point of the novel is the idea of her moral rectitude being what draws men to her, and this is a curiously Victorian idea. In any event, the romantic pairing in this version is the most troublesome part of the movie, because it falls back on that old chestnut of the virtuous, virginal woman falling for the dangerous bad boy and tends to exaggerate both archetypes. This carries with it another Victorian idea: that a bad man can be redeemed by the love of a good woman. These ideas tend to run counter to the underlying feminism of the story, in which Jane is a capable, self-reliant woman. Jane Eyre is a conflicted text sometimes.
The madwoman in the attic, it should be noted, becomes a symbol of the sexual repression both Jane and Rochester feel, in addition to her status as a plot device. Overt sexuality is dialed way down in this movie, much to its detriment, I think, but it's not entirely absent. Desire, after all, drives the characters to do stupid things, whether it's Rochester's desire to marry Jane while his wife is still alive or Rev. St. John's foolish proposal to Jane before going to India. And, of course, Jane spurns the kindly Reverend to go back to a beast of a man. Go figure.
In any case, the rest of the cast is well-appointed with interesting faces. Sally Hawkins's Mrs. Reed is very far away from the roles the actress normally plays, and she manages a severe spitefulness very well. Judi Dench adds gravitas to the film as Mrs. Fairfax. Jamie Bell is properly heartsick as Rev. St. John. But most of these characters are off screen. This is Mia Wasikowska's show. Jane is on screen in every scene, and Fukunaga makes sure Wasikowska is the first thing we see by fracturing the chronology and beginning the movie in media res. The young Jane is played by Amelia Clarkson, and she's good, but the filmmakers never give her the chance to swipe the spotlight. They gloss over Jane's early life a little too quickly, to the point where the fact that Jane works her way up from the bottom at school to become a teacher is never made clear. This seems like an important omission given the way the plot of the movie progresses, but, hell, Jane's biography isn't the center of the movie, I guess. All that really matters is that she has bad taste in men.