2011 // UK // Cary Fukunaga // April 14, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
From a capsule summary of Cary Fukunaga's 2009 feature film debut, Sin Nombre, one might conclude that it is a gritty, realistic portrait of the horrors of illegal immigration and Mexican gang culture. Not so. Whatever its faults, the film's most enthralling characteristic is its stylized sensationalism. Fukunaga renders the northward flight of a fraught Hondouran girl and a hard-bitten Mexican fugitive as a mythic Hero's Journey out of Hell. The director's use of resonant visuals and his conspicuous care for details (both naturalistic and heightened) signals that he favors an evocative story over real-world Serious Issues. Thus, a Chiapas rail yard becomes a terrifying and sulfurous Purgatory, while MS-13 thugs convening in a graveyard take on the aspect of reveling demons.
In this light, word that the director would be helming, of all things, the latest adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's seminal novel Jane Eyre elicited first confusion, then profound curiosity. True to form, Fukunaga stresses the gothic elements of the source material, tweaking Brontë's tale into something approaching a moody ghost story (in spirit if not in substance), complete with twisted woodlands and phantom whispers. The film veritably drips with Northern damp, thanks in large part to the striking design overseen by Will-Hughes Jones and the peerless location selection. The film is an excellent illustration of genuine atmospherics, as opposed to mere lavish window dressing, particularly now that every limp period film seems to boast the latter.
The novel describes Jane as studiously plain and Rochester as a homely lout, whereas Fukunaga's film offers the angelic Mia Wasikowska and the unfailingly absorbing Michael Fassbender. No matter. Nearly every character in the film is an effortlessly and richly realized figure, wholly apposite to Brontë's shadowy yarn of personal honor and ghastly secrets. Yet none of the performances are what one could justly call dazzling, or even particularly actorly. Even Fassbender, whose early scenes as the snappish Rochester are admittedly a bit of a jolt, seems to shrink a bit in the chill winds of the Derbyshire hill country. This ultimately works in Jane Eyre's favor, as it permits Fukunaga's direction to take center stage, along with the cinematography of Adriano Goldman, whose lensing of Sin Nombre was nowhere near as lovely.
Fukunaga uses his setting to fine thematic effect, conjuring from moor and manor a wracked aura of alternating exposure and suffocation, which harmonizes elegantly with Jane's entrapment between comfort and self-respect, yearning and dread. Often, the film's style wanders into distinctly impressionistic terrain, employing dreamy close-ups and drifting focus in a manner that recalls Jane Campion's cinematic odes. Indeed, Dario Marianelli's score of quiet, mournful strings draws unmistakably from Michael Nyman's prominent work in The Piano, but also from George Fenton's underrated score for the Jekyll-and-Hyde flop Mary Reilly.
That Fukunaga manages to establish such a potent mood without losing sight of the humane coming-of-age pathos at the story's core, or skimping on the dense thematic treatment of gender, class, and morality, is quite an achievement. Moira Buffini's screen adaptation is generally faithful, although unlike the novel's linear narrative, it makes ample use of flashback. Pointedly, she allows most of the novel's moments of moralistic vindication to wither away, leaving a more desolate (and credible) "Tale of Woe," as Rochester would say. Of course, running through the whole thing is the dodge-parry-thrust of Brontë's dialog, which unsurprisingly attains full flower in any scene shared by Wasikowska and Fassbender. It's delicious stuff, but in a work that is otherwise so overtly cinematic, the dialog seems more a remnant of the story's literary genome than a natural outgrowth of the film's style.