Jane Eyre may lack fortune and good looks — she is famously “small and plain” as well as “poor and obscure” — but as the heroine of a novel, she has everything. From the very first pages of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 book, Jane embodies virtues that might be off-putting if they were not so persuasive, and if her story were not such a marvelous welter of grim suffering and smoldering passion. She is brave, humble, spirited and honest, the kind of person readers fall in love with and believe themselves to be in their innermost hearts, where literary sympathy lies.
Much as Jane combines what would seem to be incompatible traits within a single voice and body — her employer and soul mate, Edward Rochester, is an even wilder brew of contradictions — so does Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” mash up genres and effects with mesmerizing virtuosity. The novel’s blend of Christian piety, Gothic horror, barely suppressed eroticism and high-toned comedy satisfied readerly appetites in the Victorian era and ever after. It is hardly surprising that this book has inspired so many film adaptations over the last hundred years, the latest of which stars Mia Wasikowska as Jane, the beleaguered governess.
Reader, I liked it. This “Jane Eyre,” energetically directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) from a smart, trim script by Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe”), is a splendid example of how to tackle the daunting duty of turning a beloved work of classic literature into a movie. Neither a radical updating nor a stiff exercise in middlebrow cultural respectability, Mr. Fukunaga’s film tells its venerable tale with lively vigor and an astute sense of emotional detail.
In its superbly spare execution, the newest adaptation of Jane Eyre is both faithful to Charlotte Brontë's classic and distinctively original.
It's a grittier and more subtle take, with handsome cinematic flourishes and an intriguing storytelling approach. The talented cast, spectacular cinematography and spot-on production design is guided by the sure hand of director Cary Joji Fukunaga.
His visceral style pays off, particularly in the scenes of Jane's punishing early experiences as an oppressed orphan. The lash of a cane, a slam into a wall, the ripping of flesh are as powerfully presented as the sumptuous, if haunting, stateliness of early 19th-century manor life in Thornfield Hall.
While Fukunaga's alchemy is evident in this subtly bewitching tale, the only drawback is the low-burner chemistry between the leads.
Mia Wasikowska beautifully captures Jane's watchful nature, intelligence and wounded spirit. Michael Fassbender powerfully portrays the surliness of the tormented Mr. Rochester. The sense of mystery surrounding him is palpable, as are his flashes of charm, though he may be too conventionally handsome for Brontë's mercurial character.
Soon after the fevered opening of this latest "Jane Eyre," the far-off figure of the heroine, unmoored on the moors, stands at a crossroads that is hardly more than a crosspaths—four corners faintly traced in one of the film's many understated yet transfixing vistas. Almost everything about Cary Fukunaga's version of the Charlotte Brontë romance is understated yet transfixing, mainly—although far from exclusively—because of Mia Wasikowska's presence in the title role. She embodies Jane's most endearing qualities—courage, passion, devotion, unadorned beauty—but not for a moment the moist poignance that many of the umpteen previous versions have inflicted on her. (Eighteen feature films, to be exact, and nine TV versions.) This Jane meets the world and everyone in it with a rock-solid sense of herself that can only be shaken by love.
Ms. Wasikowska works with economical purity within the novel's 19th-century English setting. Jane's personal power seems entirely her own, rather than some anachronistic notion of self-empowerment. That's particularly stirring in a crucial moment of self-assertion—"Am I a machine without feelings?" she begins—with Michael Fassbender's forbiddingly handsome Rochester. And it's all the more impressive in light of the young Australian star's charmingly modern portrayal of an American teenage daughter in "The Kids Are All Right."
Gothic romance attracts us with a deep tidal force. Part of its appeal is the sense of ungovernable eroticism squirming to escape from just beneath the surface. Its chaste heroines and dark brooding heroes prowl the gloomy shadows of crepuscular castles, and doomy secrets stir in the corners. Charlotte's Bronte's Jane Eyre is among the greatest of gothic novels, a page turner of such startling power, it leaves its pale latter-day imitators like Twilight flopping for air like a stranded fish.
To be sure, the dark hero of the story, Rochester, is not a vampire, but that's only a technicality. The tension in the genre is often generated by a virginal girl's attraction to a dangerous man. The more pitiful and helpless the heroine the better, but she must also be proud and virtuous, brave and idealistic. Her attraction to the ominous hero must be based on pity, not fear; he must deserve her idealism.
This atmospheric new “Jane Eyre,” the latest of many adaptations, understands those qualities, and also the very architecture and landscape that embody the gothic notion. The film opens with Jane Eyre fearfully fleeing across the bleak moors, where even nature conspires against her. This is not the opening we expect, with Jane already fully grown, but later in flashbacks, we'll be reminded of her Dickensian girlhood, her cruel aunt, her sadistic boarding school, and her need as a girl without means to earn her own way as a governess.
The book is called "Jane Eyre" but when it comes to its numerous movie versions, whether it's Orson Welles in 1944 or Michael Fassbender right now, the actor playing Edward Rochester often ends up with the lion's share of the attention.
That's because the brooding master of Thornfield in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel is one of literature's archetypal romantic heroes, a complex and troubled individual who is sensitive, poetic and, as Lady Caroline Lamb famously said of Lord Byron, "mad, bad and dangerous to know."
A part like that is catnip for performers who can play the rogue male, and Fassbender swallows it whole. He's a German-born Irish actor who is about to break big with roles in the next X-Men movie, a Steven Soderbergh thriller and "Prometheus," Ridley Scott's "Alien" prequel. Fassbender energizes not just his scenes with Mia Wasikowska's accomplished but inevitably more pulled-back Jane but this entire film.
Bronte's romantic novel of a young governess engaged in a classic struggle for equality and independence has, as noted, been filmed a lot: One count lists 18 theatrical feature versions plus nine telefilms. But it's not always had a director with as much of a flair for the five-alarm-fire dramatics of its plot as Cary Joji Fukunaga.
As his first film, the Sundance success "Sin Nombre," demonstrated, Fukunaga is an intense, visceral filmmaker with a love for melodramatic situations. His no-holds-barred style is more successful here than in his debut because the necessity of working within the boundaries of Bronte's narrative provides just the right amount of structure to showcase his talents.
One of the shrewd choices Fukunaga has made is to emphasize the natural gothic aspects of the story. Thornfield, where much of the action takes place, is an old dark house after all, and expert cinematographer Adriano Goldman beautifully captures both the building's candle-lit spookiness and the desolate beauty of the surrounding Derbyshire countryside.
Ok, I get that you're probably up to here with Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel about the young governess and her brooding, Byronic master has been shoved down our throats since high school. Then there's the 18 feature films that have been carved out of the book, plus nine TV-movie versions. Is anything fresh even possible? Hang on, haters. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) have deftly brought out Brontë's gothic terrors. And they've wisely cast it young.
The splendid Aussie actress Mia Wasikowska, 21, is best known for playing the lead in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. And she brings innocence and carnal curiosity to the role of Jane, a teen orphan who doesn't know what to expect when she comes to scary-gloomy Thornfield Hall to care for the young ward of Mr. Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Even the presence of friendly housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (the excellent Judi Dench) can't hide the fact that secrets are a living, sometimes howling, screaming presence at Thornfield.
For a rising young actress, it has become a rite of passage to star in a tony literary costume drama. Think Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma (1996) or Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice (2005). But Mia Wasikowska may have just set the land speed record for jumping into a prestige British period piece. She made her presence known on the movie radar only last year, with her unfussy performance in The Kids Are All Right and by occupying the still center of Tim Burton's overstuffed carnival ride Alice in Wonderland. Now, just 21 years old, here she is as the ''plain,'' pensive, servant-with-an-inner-fire heroine of Jane Eyre, the umpteenth screen version of Charlotte Brontë's roiling Victorian romance.
As Jane, the willful orphan who becomes a docile governess, Wasikowska has pale skin, a lovely collarbone, and a rock-steady gaze, with serious eyes that seem to look right into the soul of whomever she's talking to. This actress doesn't just send out vibes of awareness — she's gorgeously grave. She makes Jane's passive, shrinking-violet moments percolate with hidden life. Wearing a series of gray dresses that resemble aprons, and with her tawny hair in an intricate bun, Wasikowska's Jane is a girl who knows her place, yet her discerning goodness and moral independence make her stand out. It's enough to get her booted from the mansion of her aunt, played with glittering snootiness by Sally Hawkins. Jane eventually lands at Thornfield Hall, where she looks after the French ward of the troubled, majestically brooding Mr. Rochester, who stares at his young charge and sees the ray of sunlight that can heal him.