Director provides a breath of fresh Eyre

BACK ON SCREEN: Top, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in the latest film version of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukanaga,
BACK ON SCREEN: Top, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in the latest film version of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukanaga,
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Jane Eyre has inspired successive generations of filmmakers and another adaptation is on the way. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw reports.

Tall, slim, handsome and favouring a sleek preppy look, his combination of slicked hair, academic’s specs and angular features makes him a contender as one of the flawed heroes that haunt the Brontës’ books.

A 34-year-old Californian, Fukunaga has travelled north for the UK premiere of the umpteenth film version of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 epic of romance, madness and deceit that charts the story of an elfin lass whose goodness wins the love of the impassioned Mr Rochester, owner of Thornfield manor.

And he’s nervous. Sipping from a glass of white wine, he talks quickly and scans the far horizon where dark clouds threaten rain on the landscape that inspired Charlotte and which continues to draw readers to the book and movie buffs to the succession of film adaptations it spawns.

Since 1910 there have been a dozen film versions of Jane Eyre. The star combinations have included Colin Clive and Virginia Bruce, Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, George C. Scott and the late Susannah York, and William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg.There have also been versions made in India (with the great star Dilip Kumar) and in Greece with Manos Katrakis as “Rodgester”.

It is constantly being adapted for television; such is its timeless appeal. TV Rochesters have included Stanley Baker, Timothy Dalton (also a Heathcliff in 1970s Wuthering Heights), Toby Stephens and Ciarán Hinds. The various Janes have included Sorcha Cusack, Zelah Clarke, Ruth Wilson and Samantha Morton.

The multi-lingual son of a Japanese father and a Swedish mother, Fukunaga has already been described as “a genius” by fans. He is certainly an erudite student of Jane Eyre lore and recognises the depth of the sea in which he is swimming.

“I haven’t modernised it at all. I have nothing but respect for period language. I didn’t want this film to feel like ‘Oh, that’s one of those 2011 films’ 20 years from now,” he offers by way of introduction to his take on the story. “I try to bring authenticity to it [by bringing] the age of the characters of the book into the decision on the casting. Jane’s hardly 18 years old when she turns up at Thornfield. Rochester is 38. [Michael] Fassbender who plays Rochester is only 34 but his face feels like he’s seen more years.

“Adaptations are hard in general but the youthful energy part actually brings a perspective that’s just a bit more modern into a very classic tale. It doesn’t mean I’m trying to sex it up. It just means I key into different parts of the story that mean something to me now.”

(Later, introducing the film to a select audience that includes Brontë Parsonage director Andrew McCarthy and Brontë scholar Dr. Juliet Barker he quips “I tried to make this film with a totally fresh eye [so] we did change Jane’s name to Bella and we made Rochester a vampire...”)

He adds: “It’s always gonna come down to the people who love Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Its two different camps. But as Jane Eyre goes, especially for young women, it’s a fundamental piece of literature. It means different things to them at these different stages in their life. It has presence.”

Haworth has changed dramatically since the Bronte sisters sequestered themselves in the rectory next to the cluttered graveyard. Successive film adaptations have not been filmed in the area, choosing instead to film in North Yorkshire at Brimham Rocks, near Harrogate, at Ripon or on Boss Moor near Grassington.

Jane Eyre was shot in Derbyshire, primarily at Haddon Hall, doubling for Thornfield, and in Hathersage. Fukunaga had his reasons.

“I had a really long conversation with my location manager, Giles Eddlestone, about the landscape. From the beginning, I said ‘It’s Yorkshire’ and he said ‘No, it’s Derbyshire’,” he reveals with no sense of embarrassment.

“That was the first thing we talked about. What inspired the story were places in Derbyshire, and the landscape is very similar. Even the place where she ends up in the last third of the book, with the Rivers family, is said to be within a 20-mile radius of ‘S-----’, which people think is Sheffield. So that’s right there on the border between Yorkshire and Derbyshire and easily could be right on the border or deeper into Yorkshire.

“My understanding of it was that Thornfield could easily be in Derbyshire and her journey later on the moors could be southern Yorkshire. So we shot the whole sequence on the moors near Hathersage, right on the edge of the Peak District, [and] we shot Derbyshire for Derbyshire at Haddon Hall [near Bakewell]. At first I had my reservations and Giles said ‘You wanna shoot different for different’s sake or you wanna get the best location?’

“Thornfield is a large home so Haddon Hall works in that way. It was uninhabited for most of the 18th and 19th-century and it wasn’t until the 1920s that the family moved back in. There’s no furniture there, there’s a lot of empty spaces. It’s a blank canvas to paint on.”

By Fukunaga’s own admission Jane Eyre “was stagnant” when he came on board. It was on the BBC’s slate of future projects but he had to pursue it.

Having bagged the project he set out to cast it. He had seen Michael Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger and wanted him as Rochester from the outset. The casting of Jane was trickier.

“I asked a few friends had just cast films and all three of them said ‘Check out Mia Wasikowska in Treatment’” he reveals. “It’s a show that’s basically a two-hander and you get to see Mia in these incredible tête -à- têtes with Gabriel Byrne.

“ A lot of Jane Eyre is based on the tête-à- têtes between her and Rochester. Obviously it’s a very different dynamic but just the fact that she’s captivating throughout it led me to believe that she had the fire, the intelligence and the acting chops to do it.

“I didn’t have either her or Michael do any try-outs. They didn’t have to audition for the role. I didn’t do any chemistry tests to see how they worked together. I just had faith that both of them could do those characters.

“They are pretty fearless actors. I think Mia will definitely become the Meryl Streep of her generation.”

It’s a brave man who takes on a classic with the emotional baggage of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Fukunaga never once thought of running from it. He laughingly describes his response as a mixture of “typical American naïveté and entitlement”.

“I hope that there’s a consistency to my film that’s lacking maybe in some of the other ones. I mean that in the sense of going between the gothic and the period drama. They are two genres that are very hard to mix. It works okay in literature but it’s not as easy to execute in film.

“Taking on any story I’m gonna have butterflies. I was nervous because every step along the way you can fail. I don’t think the movie is a failure. I think it will stand the test of time but it’s up to audiences to decide whether it’s great or not.”

Jane Eyre (PG) is released on Friday. Moira Buffini, screenwriter for Jane Eyre, will be discussing adapting the novel for the screen at the West Lane Baptist Centre in Haworth on September 17. For more details visit www.bronte.info.