Richard Wilcocks writes:
Cary Fukunaga was obviously a tad nervous last Friday evening as he waited in the Parsonage garden, standing with dozens of others waiting for a tour of the house and an exclusive preview of his film, specially organised by the BBC. Presenter Christa Ackroyd soon put him at his ease with professional skill, planting him on a bench amongst the shrubs and asking him questions for BBC Look North. So why make another Jane Eyre movie after all those others? What’s different? This one’s such a contrast with what you’ve done before isn’t it? Your second big one? He explained everything, as he has many times before, mainly on the other side of the Atlantic, with a boyish charm and an endearing directness, but there was something extra in his voice – here he was talking to a woman who knew her stuff, at the celebrated spring, where Charlotte had actually penned the original. “I might not survive the night!” he said at the end of the interview.
He did, no problem: the overwhelming feeling from the audience in the Baptist Chapel in Haworth’s West Lane (the only local building suitable for the screening), judging from the applause and from many comments, was of approval.
The film takes liberties, as it must, but it is loaded with respect for the original text. The adjective ‘faithful’ tends to be over-employed in these matters, but faithful it is, to the spirit of the novel. Some previous versions for the cinema have been the sort of thing to give headaches to those described as ‘purists’, for example the 1918 silent version entitled Woman and Wife in which Rochester believes that Bertha is dead until he is told the truth by Mason, who tries to blackmail him. She then drowns. Fukunaga’s version could just be considered as a very distant relative of the early versions – with spectral figures emerging from gloom – but the plot is well in line with what Charlotte wrote, with a highly competent screenplay by Moira Buffini.
Fukunaga says he was unaware of all other adaptations until the research period, but that he knew the Robert Stevenson/Orson Welles version well. There are a few similarities perhaps, for example in the sheer malignity of Mr Brocklehurst, but many differences: the fresh, feisty nineteen year-old Mia Wasikowska of 2011 contrasts drastically with the romantically tremulous Joan Fontaine of 1943.
Viewers who have read the book might be a little disorientated at the beginning, because the film begins with Jane’s distraught flight from Thornfield and her progress across bleak moorland until she finds refuge with St John Rivers and his sisters. The flashbacks follow – and there is plenty of space given to Lowood. It was clever to adopt the non-linear approach because it allows interest to be maintained right up until the end, enhances the suspense, puts St John in a significant position and “allows all the scenes to be peppered over the movie to keep them watching” in Fukunaga’s words. The director was worried about Charlotte’s final chapter, which he thought was “the weakest”. The ending he provides is appropriately brief and cameo-like, Rochester and Jane under a tree at Ferndean. All of which could be compared favourably with the previous BBC version of 2006, the very watchable television series with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stevens. This also began with disorientation – a young girl in a red flowing robe in a desert – and practically dumped the Lowood scenes, making little use of an excellent child actor – Georgie Henley.
Fukunaga’s Lowood (and, of course, Moira Buffini’s) is a convincing nightmare of physical and mental abuse, presided over by a quietly sinister Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) where the relationship of Helen Burns (Freya Parks) with the young Jane ( spirited performance from Amelia Clarkson) is treated with great sensitivity. Craig Roberts’s John Reed is a credible bullying brat, and Mrs Reed (Sally Hawkins made me shudder) chipped out of a block of ice. Jayne Wisener’s Bessie is much younger and prettier than the one I had in my head, Valentina Cervi’s Bertha Mason likewise – she is no neglected horror, just a little dishevelled. Richard Mason in the form of Harry Lloyd looks way behind Rochester in years. In fact youthful looks are quite a feature, or perhaps that is just me, having formed my mental visualisations quite a few years ago.
Mia Wasikowska was an inspired choice for Jane, and Fukunaga was lucky to find the young Australian, because she catches the character’s sense of independence, quick wit, restraint and passionate intensity better than most of her predecessors. Plain she is not – at times she looks as if she has stepped out of a painting by Millais. She conveys Jane’s capacity for mental fight and her gradually emerging love with considerable subtlety, and the crisp exchanges with Rochester, intelligently selected from the original by Moira Buffini, are a delight. Her Yorkshire accent is well...nearly right, but this should not be noticed by many from outside the area. Michael Fassbender’s Rochester has just the right squire-like air about him, and does not reveal much sensitivity until he unlatches himself later – all very satisfying and... faithful. In fact, he is strikingly curt and unpleasant at first, taunting the new governess about tales of woe, when he still sees her as one of a species. The story of how his coarseness is refined by the girl from the class beneath him is beautifully told, and many hearts will race at their final togetherness. Jamie Bell’s dogmatic St John is also convincing, and Jane must have been simply polite to have told him she wanted him as a brother rather than as a husband, because this one is only a few steps away from Brocklehurst in his enthusiastic religiosity, a kind of non-violent and less-punitive cousin.
One of the most memorable (superb as usual) performances is from Dame Judi Dench as Mrs Fairfax, who has an undebatably perfect Yorkshire accent. The character here claims not to have known about the locked-up woman being Rochester’s wife, but then who was it that warned Mason? A wide-eyed Romy Settbon Moore plays Adele Varens just as I picture her, although she could have picked up a few more words of English to prove that her teacher was effective at TEFL.
Haddon Hall in Derbyshire makes another appearance as Thornfield, and the desolate Derbyshire moors of the Peak District are crucial for the film’s atmosphere, all those greys, etiolated yellows and apocalyptic skies straight out of John Martin paintings boxed up by cinematographer Adriano Goldman, to go with Dario Marianelli’s terrific musical score. I recognised the stunning view from Stanage Edge, just outside Sheffield, where I once climbed. The darknesses in the film provide a realistic period feel. The result is reminiscent of Kubrick’s classic Barry Lyndon, in which lights and music are also exquisitely matched. Few households of the early nineteenth century could afford constant lighting. Candles, especially those made from beeswax, were expensive. The light in Thornfield seems to come from the windows during the day, and from candles or the fireplace at night. The scene where Jane arrives at Thornfield to encounter Mrs Fairfax takes place in deep, authentic gloom, with a floating candle flame as the only guide.
The film is in cinemas nationally in a few days’ time and should be as much of a success in Britain as in the States. Hopefully, it will also bring more visitors to the Parsonage Museum.