What is your tale of woe?
—Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender)
Jane Eyre opens with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) running away. Those familiar with Charlotte Brontë‘s novel will immediately recognize this as the moment their heroine is fleeing Thornfield Hall, as well as a departure from the original text, at least in its order of events. Jane wanders sobbing across the moors until she collapses in a heap on the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. Slowly, her story is revealed in flashback.
This is not an ineffective means to beginning Jane’s story, assuming the intent is to create an air of mystery for novices, aligning those viewers with the Rivers family as they try to learn about the circumstances surrounding this quiet, unknown girl.
As they soon learn, her story is a sad one. An orphan taken in by her Aunt Reed (Sally Hawkins), Jane is treated cruelly by that woman and her son John (Craig Roberts), before being sent away to a charity school, Lowood Institution. The film does not shy away from the brutal violence that Jane suffers and Amelia Clarkson is especially wonderful as a fierce young Jane, brave enough to retaliate, but young and childish enough to be hysterically frightened of ghosts.
When she grows older, Jane is hired on as a governess for Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), the young French ward of a wealthy and brusque landowner, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). What follows is a gothic romance with Jane and Rochester falling in love, but then forced apart by the little matter of the insane secret wife, Bertha (Valentina Cervi), he has had stashed in his attic for the last 15 years.
The film throws Jane’s own brilliance into high relief by reducing other characters to gross oversimplifications and broadly drawn villains. While no one would deny the loathsome Mr. Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) wields Christianity as an instrument of condemnation and excuse for cruelty, here Jane’s dear schoolmate Helen Burns (Freya Parks) is all but deprived of her noble piety, which in the novel helps Jane to learn forgiveness, enabling her to look back on her harsh life and tell the inquiring Rochester, “I have no tale of woe.” Likewise St. John, repressed and legalistic, but also earnestly believing in the necessity of self-sacrifice in Bronte’s novel, is in the film harsh and reproachful, even threatening.
Diluting the good or exacerbating the terrible in the minor characters raises Jane up as something of a feminist forerunner. This isn’t a new reading of the source, but it’s unnecessarily exaggerated here. When she arrives at Thornfield, Jane looks out the window across the expanse of Mr. Rochester’s land, telling a shocked Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench, wonderful as always): “I wish a woman could have action in her life… like a man.” Or later, as she traces British shipping routes on a globe for Adele, she pines for freedom: “On these distant horizons, you will find all manner of men.” So you can’t miss the point, Jane voices her ideas freedom and her free will inside rooms with grim stone walls, behind leaded glass windows or in enclosed gardens.
In these scenes and elsewhere, the film’s imagery is lovely as well as heavy-handed: Jane at a literal crossroads when she flees Thornfield, or in a golden bonnet framing her face like a halo when she returns. When she is with Rochester, the season always seems to be spring; when she is away from him, the landscape in wintry and barren.
And then there are the birds. Rochester repeatedly refers to Jane (and other women) as birds, a fitting, if obvious analogy, considering how she often finds herself trapped and longing for escape. The first scene from her childhood has her hiding from her tormenter cousin, hiding behind a drape and looking at the pictures in an ornithology text. Again, in case you’ve missed that allusion, the film underlines: when Jane flees St. John to run back to Rochester, the sound of flapping wings infiltrates the musical score.
Other metaphors are handled with more finesse. When Jane struggles almost frantically to free herself from the laces of her wedding gown and fit back into her dingy gray governess dress, the close-ups beautifully, if painfully, mirror the moment from her childhood when she arrives at Lowood and is ordered out of her “fine clothes” and into the austere required uniform of the school.
Such visual insinuations remind us of the obvious: a two-hour adaptation of a story like Jane Eyre must cut back and even leave out aspects of the plot that will bother purists. The mysterious Grace Poole (Rosie Cavaliero) is barely a factor here; the film offers no explanation for Adele’s situation as Rochester’s ward and no overtly satisfying “Reader, I married him” at its conclusion.
But given the focus on Jane’s resistance to gender and class conventions, it is curious that Bertha’s story is given such scant attention. The suspense and gothic horror of Bronte’s novel and other various screen and television versions are missing here. The movie provides no sense of something truly frightening and dangerous lurking in the attic at Thornfield—not to Jane, who asks no questions about the few strange incidents, and probably not to any viewer unfamiliar with the story. Without Bertha convincingly haunting Thornfield, Rochester seems less tormented than he does merely gruff and a little sadistic. The film’s mistreatment of Bertha serves as a double-erasure, repeating Rochester’s actions towards her. And like Rochester, the film pays for it. Bertha’s absence takes a toll on its energy and tension.