Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s mistreated orphan, gothic governess, romantic heroine and female-independence champion in no-horizons times, is back on the big screen, in a modern-styled version of Bronte’s 1847 novel, which already inspired a reported 18 film adaptations.
Presented by director Cary Joji Fukunaga, this latest presentation of “poor, obscure, plain and little” Jane’s story is a vital mix of the fresh and the familiar.
The moors are foggy and the performances sparkling in this drama in which Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) emphasizes Jane’s personal journey over the famed love story and highlights Jane’s feminist qualities and inner conviction.
Screenwriter Moira Buffini has streamlined Bronte’s plot and dialogue and employed a circular storytelling structure. As for Jane, she’s young — about 18 — and played by rising Australian star Mia Wasikowska.
The filmmakers begin in the middle, when a distressed Jane, having been hit with a to-be-revealed shocker, is given shelter by minister John Rivers and his sisters. Flashbacks reveal Jane’s story.
A quick ride through childhood depicts Jane as an orphan living with her cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins) and attending a horrific boarding school.
Next comes the primary drama: a stay at Thornfield, where Jane is the governess of the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), the estate’s temperamental master.
From the moment they meet, Jane and Rochester share a wavelength. Jane proves Rochester’s intellectual match, and refuses to let Rochester, who constantly tests her, dumb her down.
Rochester comes to treasure Jane’s pure-heartedness. The two fall in love. But, of course, there’s a secret in the attic going thump in the night and threatening their wedding plans.
If there’s a frustration about the film, it is that Fukunaga, for all his focus on Bronte’s gothic elements, keeps the tone of the melodrama too mild for such material, which includes, in addition to the attic horror, a mysterious conflagration. The love story, while engaging, is low on passion.
Still, if this isn’t the ultimate Jane, it is an intelligent, entertaining big-screen movie featuring a compelling heroine, literary credentials and a winning story that should satisfy “Jane Eyre” devotees and newcomers alike.
It’s also a chance to meet a terrific new Jane in the form of Wasikowska. Splendidly unglamorous and radiating acuity and decency, she’s ideal for this character. Her exchanges with Fassbender’s formidable Rochester are among the film’s highlights.
Jamie Bell as wannabe suitor John Rivers and Judi Dench as talky housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax highlight the colorful supporting cast.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench
Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Running time 2 hours