Jane Eyre (2011): It’s Not MY Jane Eyre, But It’s Pretty Close

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

The classic book, by Charlotte Bronte, has a creepy, supernatural element that translates awkwardly to the big screen. Film-makers do one of two things: They throw up their hands at some point and say to themselves, Oh, what the hell, let’s just pretend Charlotte Bronte is Jane Austen and have everyone rattle their tea cups and step daintily over cobblestones. Or they pour on the gloom so heavily that Mr. Rochester is a King Lear-like figure, and in so doing the unfettered eroticism of the book is lost.

The book has been brought to the screen (large and small) more than 20 times by now, and there’s a new version opening today, directed by Cary Fukunaga, starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Michael Fassbende as Mr. Rochester.

The story is well-known to most anyone who has ever taken an English literature course. Jane Eyre is a first-person narrative, taking us from Jane’s loveless youth, leading us through her brutal schooling, until she gets the governess position at Thornfield Hall, owned by the imposing and mysterious Mr. Rochester.

Fukunaga messes with the structure (screenplay by Moira Buffini), splitting up the chronology of the book so we start with Jane Eyre fleeing from Thornfield Hall, a lonely weeping figure staggering across the lonely moors (this episode comes three quarters of the way through the book).

It’s a bold way to begin, thrusting us into the climax of the story with no explanation, and Wasikowska, lying on her back on a rocky plateau, sobbing, is our introduction to the downtrodden and mistreated (yet fiery-spirited and independent) Jane Eyre. The present-Jane, fearful and heartbroken, finds shelter with a rector’s family, and through her recovery, the story launches us back to her beginnings as a child (Amelia Clarkson). When Mr. Rochester finally appears, a galloping black-cloaked figure in a haunted foggy wood, we are ready for him. Jane has been making her way toward him all along.

The love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester is unique, and very difficult to get right. You would never find either of these characters strolling into a Jane Austen novel. She appears in his home to teach his young ward (a French orphan), and he takes a strange shine to her. He has no sense of the differences in their stations. This makes him captivating, but also a little bit off, morally. If there were an HR department at Thornfield Hall, he would be called in for sexual-harassment training.

Charlotte Bronte captures a very specific dynamic in her book. Mr. Rochester is a very weird man, and the two scenes in which Wasikowska and Fassbender sit and talk by the fire, when they have their first conversations, are lifted almost word-for-word from the book. The scenes are an absolute thrill to watch. Jane is no shrinking violet, although she has zero experience with men, and almost no experience with casual conversation. But she holds her own.

Wasikowska , delicate and yet firm-looking, with brown braids looping down the side of her face, looks strikingly like the few images we have of Charlotte Bronte. With every expression flickering over her face, we feel the eruptions of uncertainty and pride and desire doing battle within her. Meanwhile, Fassbender sits back in his chair, gloriously redolent and languid, comfortable in his own skin, but with a flicker of something else in his eyes. An ache of loneliness. The women he has known thus far have been French floozies or elegant, teasing English ladies. He is discontented with all of them. He yearns for something more.

As I said, there is a supernatural element to the book, not to mention the truly Gothic horror of a madwoman literally locked in an attic, and a demoniac laugh echoing through the house in the dead of night. The book ends with a literal shout of anguish reverberating through the space-time continuum: all boundaries, including geographical ones, dissolve. Love in Jane Eyre is not domesticated. Love of this sort cannot exist in a parlor with clattering tea cups. It is wild and passionate, agonizing and ecstatic, and when your lover calls out to you in his time of need, even if you are miles away, you will hear.

Unfortunately, Fukunaga deals with this film-making challenge by downplaying the supernatural aspect of the book, with the result that the film fails to achieve the book’s affecting weirdness. (You see? There’s always one element of Jane Eyre lost in translation, depending on the approach. I repeat: it is such a weird book.) Still, something of the dynamic does exist, in the strange interactions between Rochester and Jane. He is drawn to her. He can’t seem to stay away. She keeps trying to set boundaries, and he finds himself unable, again and again, to respect them. It’s a matter of chemistry, pure and simple.

In the book, there is one unforgettable scene in which Mr. Rochester hosts a party, insisting that Jane join the party, even though she doesn’t have evening wear, and she feels uncomfortable. Then Mr. Rochester disappears from the party, and it is announced that a gypsy-woman has arrived and is going to tell each guest’s fortune. Jane is led in to see the veiled gypsy-woman, who then proceeds to interrogate her about how she feels about her employer, Mr. Rochester. Jane fumbles her replies, but she is not a dissembler. She tells the truth. Naturally, it turns out that the gypsy-woman is actually Mr. Rochester in disguise, in drag. He created this whole crazy plan so he could find out how Jane felt about him. It is the equivalent of passing Jane a note in Health class: “Do you like me? Check Yes or No.” The scene is completely deranged. Mr. Rochester is a weirdo. Fukunaga has not included this very important scene – it’s often left out because … how would you even film it? – but the film suffers for it. By leaving it out, Fukunaga deprives the audience of the essentially strange part of Mr. Rochester’s already twisted personality. It’s harsh to make judgments based on opportunity-cost, reviewing what is not there as opposed to what is. But that’s the risk you assume when you take on a well-known work of literature. We know the scene was there. It exists still.

So let’s think about it for a second:

Mr. Rochester, gloomy forbidding imposing Mr. Rochester, went to the trouble of 1. planning a party so that 2. he could have a “gypsy” show up randomly to play party games. He went to the trouble of putting together a gypsy costume and a veil and pretending to be a woman all so he can get Jane to confide in him, about him. This gypsy-drag-routine is what makes him so specific, and unlike anyone else, anywhere, ever. Imagine him in a Jane Austen novel. Impossible. Without the gypsy moment, Rochester is a run-of-the-mill depressed Byronic hero.

Despite this drawback, the film, by focusing on the small interactions between Jane and Rochester, the details of their eye contact and behavior, stays grounded in the reality of these two very famous fictional characters. I know them well from my times reading the book, and I recognized them here.

Judi Dench plays Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper at Thornfield Hall, who probably knows more than she is saying, and Sally Hawkins has a terrific cameo as Mrs. Reed, the vicious woman who raised Jane. But this is Fassbender’s and Wasikowska’s movie, as it should be. Wasikowska has had quite a year, what with playing Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Joni in The Kids Are All Right, and here she brings something completely new to the table, announcing her as a major player. Fassbender smolders and grins, gives her piercing glances across crowded rooms, and explodes in anger when he doesn’t get what he wants. He’s sexy and convincing, and is almost, almost, the Mr. Rochester of the book.

If only he had gotten to dress up in drag.

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38 Responses to Jane Eyre (2011): It’s Not MY Jane Eyre, But It’s Pretty Close

  1. Tom says:

    Is this only playing in New York?

  2. sheila says:

    Tom – I’m pretty sure it’s being released widely today.

  3. april says:

    Great review — and I agree totally about the clever header! I can’t *wait* to see this one… Ever since her astonishing performance as Sophie for the first season of HBO’s “In Treatment,” I’ve thought that Mia Wasikowska is one of those actors who just gets it, somewhere very deep in her being. Kinda like River Phoenix in “Stand By Me” or DiCaprio in “Gilbert Grape”… the kids you just *know* are not only going to be huge stars, but real actors. Nice, too, that she has Fassbinder and Dench to play off of in this one, even if he *doesn’t* get to do drag!

  4. sheila says:

    April – I can’t wait to talk to other people about this movie. Yes, Mia is just wonderful – you wouldn’t think that she of the luminous face and blonde hair could pull off the “plainness” of Jane – but she does. She completely transforms. Totally believable.

    She has this way of speaking, when she’s emotional (at least in Jane Eyre) – where she struggles inside with even her right to be saying such things. She doesn’t just blast him for his deceit – she is devastated, and also … in a completely new space – where she has to say things she’s never said before – she just plays all of this so wonderfully.

    And Fassbender?

    Good God.

  5. sheila says:

    And the first scene where they talk by the fire! They absolutely nail it.

  6. Renee says:

    This movie was plain awful. Mia cannot act and the only thing going for her is that she is plain in real life. The two leads Mia and Michael Fassbender have no chemistry whatsoever-it’s like they’re in 2 different movies-and the ending is abrupt. Many people in the audience laughed throughout the entire movie it was so awful and ridiculous. I disagree about Mia’s acting as it was wooden and way too confident for a woman who was brought up that way and had to endure her travails. She did the same “acting” in her version of Alice in Wonderland! If you want to see this character played as it should, catch Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (and a really young Elizabeth Taylor-I think she was about 12 y.o.- in the orphanage scene) in the original Jane Eyre-now that was acting. You could probably rent the dvd or get it from the library. I haven’t see the Wide Sargasso Sea which is supposed to be a version of the story of the “madwoman wife” in the basement-after all, that woman didn’t go crazy by herself, and I am sure anybody would go crazy locked upo in a basement-but will eventually get to either see the movie or read the book.

  7. sheila says:

    Renee – Yes, I have seen quite a few of the versions of Jane Eyre including the one you mention (which I love). I enjoyed the 2006 version quite a lot as well. Haven’t seen them all, but many of them!

    I don’t agree at all that “Mia can’t act” – but I think I made clear my issues with the movie (which is mainly an issue with the adaptation). Other than that, I enjoyed it and found it very entertaining.

    I liked a lot of Dana Stevens’ thoughts in Slate here is her review – especially her final thoughts, which is something I hadn’t really thought of, but seems to me just right. There is something in the book that keeps filmmakers going back to it again and again (no surprise – I read it and it practically SCREAMS to be filmed) – and so it’s fun to actually see it through all the different prisms (some more successful than others), and see what is highlighted, what is left out. but Dana said it best:

    // As in the novel, Rochester’s temperament is so mercurial that he effectively functions for stretches as the story’s villain, a never-quite-resolved tension that works better on the page than onscreen. But the film’s ambiguous ending seems curiously appropriate to its status as the latest in a long line of adaptations. If this Jane Eyre ended on a settled note, there’d be no need for the next.//

    I love that thought!

  8. tracey says:

    Sooo …. what I was saying was ….. ;-)

    You know my eagerness to see this film, but I’ve been sitting here thinking about the omission of the Rochester-as-gypsy scene and the more I think about it, the more bummed I get. That won’t stop me from seeing the movie — oh no — but now I’m braced for that.

    It’s so pivotal and so revealing of Rochester that I honestly can’t imagine what kind of conversation took place during production that led to its omission. Why leave it out? To make Rochester more palatable somehow? People who love the book love Rochester the way he is, including the cross-dressing gypsy scene. I know the scene is weird, but it’s almost …. touchingly weird to me. I think it’s a scene of desperation and insecurity. I love your passing note at school analogy, although Rochester can’t quite bring himself to be even that direct. He’s like a school kid having another school kid do some “crush” recon for him — but he’s both school kids! The one doing the crushing and the one doing the recon. I think we’ve all had a friend do crush recon for us at some point in our lives, but we make sure to pick someone we trust to do the job. To me, beyond being buhzarre and desperate and insecure, the whole scenario shows Rochester has no one he truly trusts EXCEPT Jane. It shows his isolation apart from her. It’s creepy and weird, but it makes him more human to me, if that makes sense. I think we’ve all been creepy and weird when we’re falling in love. We’re not sure where the lines are anymore. We can move so far away from the “normal” lines that the lines become dots to us. In high school, I used to drive by my crush’s house constantly and I could write a whole journal entry on the significance of the curtains being slightly askew — compared to the last time I drove by earlier that same day. (Nowadays, this would be called “stalking” and “psychopathy.”)

    But who can Rochester trust to do his crush recon? Mrs. Fairfax? Adele? She’s a child. No. He has no one, really. No one he trusts like that but Jane and so he does this INSANE thing — because he’s weird, yes, but desperate and insecure too.

    I think the desperation behind the weirdness is what really resonates.

  9. sheila says:

    Tracey – yes!!!!! He HAS to know how Jane feels about him. You are right – it is that desperation that makes him so … weird … yet also (like you say) so human. This man, who seems to Jane to be cock of the walk, resorting to that? It’s devastating. The most romantic thing EVER.

    I remember my friend Ann and I driving by my current flame’s house in Chicago (he of the technicolored-dreamcoat) and we sat there, staring at his apartment and there was a light on in the window. It was about 11 o’clock at night. And Ann – being the best crush recon ever said, “That looks like it was a light just left on.” Meaning: he wasn’t home. HOW CAN YOU TELL from the QUALITY OF THE LIGHT that someone is or is not home???? If you totally scoff at that question, then you have never been crazy in love.

    Rochester is CRAZY in love.

    I am so eager, Tracey, to hear your thoughts about this movie once you see it – your comments deepen my disappointment that that crucial scene was not included – but I feel like Fassbender plays it anyway. In his other interactions with Jane. We see him as SHE sees him – the ultimate in desirable – but there’s something so sad about him, so … ridiculous … He gets that. (I love the scene when she discovers that his room is on fire, while he sleeps and pours a bucket of water on him. He is at first outraged, but then, immediately following, embarrassed and shy because he is in his nightshirt. Beautifully played!!)

    I just don’t understand the omission of that scene which is so key to who he is. Wish I was a fly on the wall for that discussion.

  10. tracey says:

    Honestly, yes, I WANT to know the reason why!! I mean, it seems to me you have to make a deliberate choice to do so. It’s not just, “Oh, we can lose that” — or if it was, then the director, et al., didn’t understand the source material at all and I certainly don’t get that sense from your review.

    Literally, it’s like I want someone in on that discussion to come to this blog and defend himself! I want to put him in an uncomfy chair, shine giant klieg lights in his face, and cross-examine him for hours. I could sooner say goodbye to St. John Rivers than this one small episode.

    Obviously, in Rochester we have a fellow who makes odd — to say the least — choices. I mean, his first wife is imprisoned in the attic. (This is the BEST choice, Edward? Really?) But the odd choice of the ruse makes an odd sense if you’ve ever been crazy in love. THAT’S a bizarre choice that we can understand.

    I wonder, though, why the *cross-dressing* nature of the ruse? Did Rochester think Jane would open up more to a woman? (And where did he find a dress to fit him??) The Rochester I picture in my head does NOT make a believable-looking woman. Why not be a male gypsy fortune teller? It’s so bizarre, it mesmerizes me.

  11. sheila says:

    He is literally a man at the end of his rope, by that point – but we have to piece that together because we only see him from Jane’s point of view. This gaggle of guests have been staying at Thornfield Hall for weeks – one of which, Blanche Ingram, he is supposed to marry. She is smug and insufferable … and Jane observes their interactions and almost wishes that Blanche could be good and beautiful so that she could then just be ENVIOUS as opposed to have the torture dragged out because Blanche is so obvioiusly not “for” Mr. Rochester.

    And he knows she is not “for” him as well – but it’s the guests that will never leave … all he wants is to be alone with jane and his houseguests make that impossible so he makes the perfectly logical decision to ….. dress up as a gypsy? and request Jane to come see him/her?



    He is out of his mind. When you see it you’ll see how Fassbender is playing all of this anyway … and while, yes, he would not make a convincing woman, old or young, that is part of the witchery of the scene. The two enter into an alternate universe. It is totally intimate. The kinds of things lovers say to one another after they’ve made love for the first time … only Rochester is getting these admissions from Jane under totally false (and INSANE) pretenses.

    It’s a brilliant character thing and I really wonder why it wasn’t included. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else, and believe me I looked. It’s one of the most famous scenes in the book. Baffling.

  12. tracey says:

    So true, Sheila! It’s the sheer torment of Blanche and those damn house guests that partly drives his insanity here. Great thought. A couple of weeks of Blanche and I’d be dressing up as a polka-dancing Yeti.

    That’s really puzzling to me that no one else has mentioned it. How is that possible???

    Really, IS it possible that scene doesn’t resonate for others the way it does for us??

  13. sheila says:

    I think a lot of people either take the book for granted (they read it in Honors English and that’s all they recall of it) OR they totally mistake it for a Jane Austen novel, and therefore completely mischaracterize it. Can you imagine Mr. Rochester pulling that shit in Pride and Prejudice?

    We don’t live in a literate world, sadly, and I think literary analysis is sorely lacking on all fronts. People think they know the story of Jane Eyre, because they read it in 10th grade, not realizing that that books LIVES for GENERATIONS of readers. That is NOT irrelevant.

    So either they thought the scene was unimportant (how could that be?) or they decided that it was “too weird” for the movie they wanted to make.

    The aforementioned Dana Stevens sent me the following link – an interviw with Fassbender which is fantastic. While this scene is not mentioned, it clearly reveals how he was THINKING about the part which is right on the money.

    Check out the last couple of sentences from him in the interview.

    Yes, yes, and yes!

  14. tracey says:

    Okay. I’m reading the interview now and this struck me as so funny:

    /When I watched Orson Welles, he’s like “Jane, Jaaaaaane” and all these crazy faces. /

    Hahahahaha. That’s exactly how I felt about it.

  15. tracey says:

    /He’s so weird, and you want to find that weirdness as well as possible./

    BINGO. That’s it.

  16. sheila says:

    I feel that Michael Fassbender and I are TOTALLY in sycn on this point. I feel very close to him right now.

  17. Catherine says:

    Tracey, I’m in BITS laughing at the idea of Rochester getting Mrs Fairfax to do crush recon for him! That is a hilarious image.

  18. sheila says:

    hahaha He corners her in the pantry. “Okay, Mrs. Fairfax, I know you’re busy, but could you just try to throw my name into conversation with Jane and see how she reacts? Then come back and TELL ME EVERYTHING.”

  19. tracey says:

    Makes me think of that dude at the coffeehouse who threw me the paper airplane. “Will you go out with me, yes or no?”

    “Here, Mrs. Fairfax. Throw this in Jane’s direction and then bring it back to me, ‘kay?”

  20. Catherine says:

    There’s also Grace Poole, right? Now there’s a crazy bitch. Maybe she could take time off Bertha Duty to do some scoping out of what Jane thinks of him.

  21. sheila says:

    Yeah, really. Enlist Grace Poole to do some crush recon.

  22. sheila says:

    “Grace, I know you’re busy taking care of my locked-up mentally-deranged wife and I appreciate it, but if you have some spare time could you maybe say something to Jane like, ‘Boy, Mr. Rochester is handsome’ and see how she reacts? And then come back and TELL ME EVERYTHING.”

  23. Catherine says:

    “Aw c’mon, can’t you just…just leave the room for ten minutes? Bertha will be fine, I’m sure. She can handle being alone for ten minutes, Grace! C’mon, please? I promise I’ll stop blaming you for every little thing…I just need you to go up to Jane and see what her thoughts are. Maybe just engage her in a little feminine chit-chat. You know, girl to girl. Sorry! Woman to woman. Whatever. Just say…um… ‘Hey Jane, have you noticed how ripped Mr.R is?’ Yeah, call me Mr.R. That sounds attractive, right?”

  24. sheila says:


    Poor Mr. Rochester. He is out of his mind!!

    “Okay, Grace, so maybe what you can do is strike up a conversation with her about me – and I’ll just hide behind the curtain over there. But BE SUBTLE about it. Don’t give it away. Just be like, “Yo, isn’t Mr. R hot? Don’t you think so, Jane?’ You know … something subtle like that.”

  25. sheila says:

    “Maybe I could write an anonymous love poem, Grace, and you could, you know, drop it on the floor in her room or something like that.”

  26. sheila says:

    “Mrs. Fairfax, I must speak with you immediately. It is of the utmost importance.”
    “Yes, sir?? Is everything all right?”
    “But I dusted the crockery just like you like.”
    “That’s fine.”
    “I changed the bed linens and gave the rooms a good airing. Did I not do a fine job of it?”
    “No, it’s fine. I don’t care.”
    “Then what is it? Is someone ill? Is there a problem with the staff? You look so serous. What is it?”
    Long pause.
    “Do you think Jane likes me, Mrs. Fairfax? I mean, like LIKES me?”

  27. Catherine says:

    “Hey Grace, what’s up? We’re cool, right? I mean…we’re friends! I’m not like a typical boss, am I? Not every guy-whose-mentally-deranged-wife-you-care-for is as easy going as me, right? We’re buds! So…can I ask you for another favour? I was thinking maybe me, you, and Jane could go out for drinks together, Sex and the City style! I’m renting the dvd boxsets from the library – you know we don’t get HBO out here – and it’s really quite good. I’m totally a Carrie, right? Anyway, where was I….oh, yeah, so maybe we could all hang out? As ladies? Could you mention to Jane that you want to have a girls night out? And say that your cousin from out of town is visiting. See, I was planning on wearing my gypsy woman outfit! Great idea, right?! You maybe suggest to Jane that we all head out together for cocktails and girl talk…maybe say we can discuss what a babe Mr.R is…”

  28. sheila says:

    // I’m totally a Carrie, right? //

  29. sheila says:

    Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre and Grace Poole drinking apple-tinis at Thornfield Hall and gossiping about sex.


  30. Catherine says:

    Mr.Rochester thinks he’s a Carrie, but he’s actually a Charlotte.

  31. sheila says:


    He is!!!!

  32. Catherine says:

    Hahahaha this is a RIDICULOUS conversation! I’m dying!

  33. tracey says:

    Hahahahahahahaha! You guys are killing me.

    “Uhm, Grace? Yeah, hi. Soooo, I’m in a bit of a dither …. I’m wondering if …. well, I’m having a bit of a wardrobe ….. hm, how to say it? Can I borrow a dress for the party tonight?”

  34. sheila says:

    HAHAHA He borrows Grace’s dress – dying.

    “hm, how to say it?”

  35. Lizzie says:

    …and then Grace Poole, in exasperation, coined the phrase “She’s just not that into you.”

    About the gypsy scene–the only version that I remember seeing it in was the Timothy Dalton one from the 70s or 80s. It seems to me like there’s a widespread discomfort among the adaptors of Jane Eyre–not just for this particular version–to show Mr. Rochester dressing up as a woman, not as a joke, but out of desperation. If he is (as I suspect) generally labeled a ‘typical Byronic hero’, and if you see him through that lens, then you’re invested in overlooking the aspects of his character that don’t quite gel, the ones that REALLY set him apart.

  36. sheila says:

    // then you’re invested in overlooking the aspects of his character that don’t quite gel, the ones that REALLY set him apart. //

    So true, so true.

    To me, that scene is essential to explaining him, to understanding him. To shy away from it, because it’s so bold – seems ridiculous to me. IT IS BOLD. To shy away from it because it’s gender-bending is also ridiculous – it IS gender-bending. Jane Eyre is the dominant one in that relationship – she has far more self-control – and he, although he is a giant man, and brooding, and privileged due to his status as a male – is in the submissive role. he is far more demonstrative and he doesn’t have as much control as she does. She actually can walk away. He cannot.

    The roles are reversed. It is extremely unbalancing and the fact that he would resort to putting on a dress is the perfect manifestation of that, and directors being unable to manage that, and so ignoring it, just means that
    1. Charotte Bronte was a genius
    2. the director needs to work harder. Freakin’ justify it, dammit. That’s why they pay you the big bucks, coward.

    That’s what Charlotte Bronte wrote. It’s not an incidental peripheral scene – it’s a KEY scene. Just like the witches in Macbeth which are equally hard to justify and equally difficult to stage properly. It so easily can seem RIDICULOUS. But you know what? That’s what Shakespeare wrote. Either find a way to justify it, or just admit that you lack imagination, just admit that you are not up to the job of Director, and admit that you’ve thrown up your hands in despair and said, “I can’t figure it out! Let’s just cut it!”

    It’s a key scene. It’s THE key scene, even more so than her hearing him call to her from across the space-time continuum.

  37. Catherine says:

    Oh, Sheila, I’m just back from seeing this and it slayed me. I went to see it with a really good friend and when the lights came up at the end he just looked at me and said “…let’s get you a coffee.” He said he could hear me start to sniffle about three-quarters of the way through, and by the end I was just a wreck. I sobbed like a wounded animal at the ending! I’m not a period film girl at all usually, and film adaptations of books I love rarely do it for me, but I absolutely LOVED this. I can’t even articulate anything right now, except stupid ravings, but wow.

  38. sheila says:

    Oh Catherine, I’m so excited you loved it so much!!

    Michael Fassbender’s face in that last scene … as she approaches him … Totally heartbreaking.

    Would love to hear more once you recover!

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