Essays · Movies

The Powerful Simplicity of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s ‘Jane Eyre’

Fukunaga’s simple directorial style allows the 2011 film to soar above other adaptations of the novel.
Jane Eyre 2011
Focus Features
By  · Published on March 11th, 2021

Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Victorian romance novel Jane Eyre is one of the most adapted texts in cinematic history, and for good reason. The book, which follows a young, poor, and plain governess named Jane Eyre and her love affair with her pupil’s guardian, Mr. Rochester, broke barriers of traditional feminist thought at the time of its publication, and, through that, fashioned a timeless and enchanting love story. 

Among the assortment of adaptations, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 2011 rendition of Jane Eyre may very well be the most faithful and genuine. Although older adaptations, such as Julian Aymes’s 1983 television series, have been praised for adhering closely to the source material, Fukunaga’s version should be regarded as the most honest depiction. 

Fukunaga’s directorial style is known for being simple and concise. His imagining of the TV show True Detective, for example, is orderly and uncomplicated. It doesn’t fall victim to the Achilles heels of so many detective stories, which include too much exposition and gratuitous violence. Indeed, much of the time, True Detective seems more concerned with its landscape and the nuanced emotions of its characters than it does with the harrowing crime drama it centers around. 

And this sensibility is exactly why Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre ultimately succeeds. From the outset, the film appears to be a simple interpretation without a lot of filmmaking liberties taken. But on second look, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is an example of sophisticated cinema masked as simple cinema — just like its protagonist, who is much more complicated than she seems. Indeed, Jane (Mia Wasikowska) appears at first to be an easily decipherable young woman and is often accused of being such. But she turns out to contain unfathomable complexities. 

In the first act of Jane Eyre, Jane is offered a job as a governess at the prestigious mansion Thornfield. At first, her employer, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), is absent and shrouded in mystery. It quickly becomes clear that Jane has little experience interacting with men, and it thus goes without saying that her first encounter with Rochester will be something of a shock to her system. 

Jane first meets Rochester as she walks through the woods and accidentally spooks his horse. In this moment, the assumed power dynamic between the two (which mirrors the conventional dynamic between a woman and man back then), is reversed; it is in fact Jane who throws a wrench in Mr. Rochester’s life — physically, by knocking him off of his horse, and later in a more emotional and spiritual way. 

The interaction between Jane and Mr. Rochester that follows is much more conventional. Jane is polite and seems unsettled by the very idea of helping a man to his horse. With the content back to conventional, Fukunaga, with the help of cinematographer Adriano Goldman, handles his shot compositions in an unconventional manner. For the majority of the scene, the camera focuses closer on Jane than it does on Mr. Rochester. Jane is framed in a medium close-up, while Rochester sits in the center of a medium shot. By this metric, Jane still seems to have all the power, though she doesn’t yet know that she does. In addition, the camera remains on a tripod, even though a shaky camera might have been more fitting for such an action-packed moment. This indicates that she is in control, despite her timidness and subservient words perhaps indicating otherwise.

This dynamic is recalled later in the film when Jane tells Mr. Rochester she would “do anything” for him. Although the comment itself might seem subservient, Fukunaga stages the scene so that Jane is standing above a seated Mr. Rochester. Jane has little to no power in society, but Fukunaga’s camera gives her all the power.

A similar understanding of the pair quietly emerges in the first couple of scenes in which Jane and Mr. Rochester really get to know each other. During their series of introductory fireside conversations, Fukunaga implements a shot, counter-shot device that places the camera right in the center of their conversation. While at first glance this seems to be a largely conventional filmmaking technique, in reality, the device subtly places the viewer in the axis of the action, and, subsequently, in Jane’s head. This is just as unconventional as it was for Fukunaga to put Jane in control via his medium close-up shot in the horse scene, as women’s thoughts and feelings were expected to be kept under the surface at the time. So while Jane and Mr. Rochester’s first few conversations are seemingly largely inconsequential — they discuss Jane’s upbringing and illusory matters of philosophy — they actually elevate Jane’s character to a place of great value and concern.

Jane’s inner contradictions and intensities are brought to the forefront of Jane Eyre via metaphor when Mr. Rochester’s bedroom is set aflame. From the little we’ve been exposed to of Jane’s inner state thus far, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the fire is meant to represent her tumultuous emotions. But, like the scene with the horse, the fire scene is not shot to mirror the franticness that the situation would enforce; instead, the tone remains consistent and steady throughout. There aren’t a lot of cuts, and the movement of the camera is steady where a lot of filmmakers might utilize a handheld technique to mirror the chaos depicted on screen. This contradiction emphasizes the disparity between what is seen and what is in Jane Eyre.

The scene where Mr. Rochester confesses his love for Jane and asks for her hand in marriage is widely regarded as the emotional climax of the story. Universally revered adaptations of Jane Eyre, such as Susanna White’s 2006 rendition and Robert Young’s 1997 version, depict the episode as a drawn-out and intense back-and-forth. But in Fukunaga’s film, the interaction is tame, short, and subdued. When looking purely at the dialogue, Rochester appears to be in complete control of the situation. He is the one who is slated to be married, and, besides, it is not a governesses place to profess her own love to her wealthy employer. But Fukunaga challenges this perspective by allowing the camera to linger on Jane for most of the scene — the power she holds to reject him contains more weight than his power to seduce her, it turns out.

Although Fukunaga adheres to traditional filmmaking styles in his adaptation of Jane Eyre, his approach subtly highlights the most important elements of the story: the independence and budding autonomy of Jane. Perhaps he could have used dialogue to convey this, but, then again, it wasn’t often that women were allowed to speak out of turn back then. It only makes sense, then, that the essence of Jane’s true nature is shown in a way that one might not notice if they are not looking closely.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.