Fukunaga tries hand at classic book

By Drew Hunt

Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” is one of England’s most famous and enduring novels. There have been more than 20 film and stage adaptations of the story and few stray far from the text. For this reason, new interpretations often feel dated and unnecessary.

The latest director to try his hand at “Jane Eyre” is Cary Fukunaga, an up-and-coming filmmaker whose previous work is about as far removed from British classicism as possible. His gritty first film, “Sin Nombre” is a bleak look at the inner workings of a violent Mexican gang.

Unsurprisingly, not an ounce of that film’s style has made it into “Jane Eyre.”

Fukunaga’s adaptation sticks closely to the novel: Jane Eyre—played by Mia Wasikowska—is an orphan sent to a stringent boarding school at a young age by her spiteful aunt. Upon her graduation, Jane finds employment as a tutor at the Thornfield Manor, owned by the wealthy

Mr. Rochester—played by Michael Fassbender. The two quickly fall in love despite a dark secret Rochester has kept for years.

With its multitude of adaptations, it’s safe to say “Jane Eyre” has been done to death. So almost by necessity, when a director decides to take a shot, he or she has to infuse the story with new life and new perspectives.

Otherwise, it’s pure regurgitation.

As a follow up to his debut, “Jane Eyre” is a decidedly more refined effort that sees Fukunaga reorienting his mis en scene to employ a less chaotic feel. Static shots and intricately defined frames replace the frenzied, handheld camera movements of “Sin Nombre.” The film’s visual style, though frequently beautiful, matches the tone of the novel a bit too complacently—though not for a lack of trying.

There’s distinct disconnect between the style and tone of the film, which can be described as erratic at best. Despite a visual sophistication, there’s a lurid unease that hovers around parts of the narrative. In scenes that depict Jane’s early childhood in an unloving home and stern boarding school, Fukunaga seems to set up a film that will explore the novel’s darker sides.

Unfortunately, he quickly abandons this approach in favor of a more conventional interpretation. His exploration of the novel’s instilled themes—such as classicism and morality—are redundantly comparable to those of other directors.

For all his effort, the film does little in the way of separating itself from other incarnations. Not helping matters is Wasikowska’s uninspired performance. As the titular Jane Eyre, the young actress significantly underplays a role that depends heavily on emotiveness.

In her defense, it’s a tough role to tackle. Underestimate the text and the performance is tiresome; overemphasize, and you run the risk of caricature. British literature is a foul wench.

The film’s silver lining comes in Fukunaga’s growing prowess as a filmmaker. With “Jane Eyre,” he proves to have a keen eye for visual expression. He absolutely revels in the widescreen format. Virtually every inch of the screen is calculatedly designed, following the cinematic rule of thirds to obsessive precision.

It’s an impressive stylistic step forward for Fukunaga. His ability to harness two divergent filmic styles—the frenetic realism of “Sin Nombre” and the more deliberate construction of this effort—is exemplary of his prowess as a director with a bright future.