I’ll confess that I wasn’t exactly jonesing for a fresh big-screen adaptation of Jane Eyre (Focus Features). A full generation hasn’t yet passed since the 1996 version, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as the steadfast orphan-turned-governess and William Hurt as her enigmatic employer, Rochester. Zeffirelli’s version was overstuffed and a bit silly, but I agree with Jessica Winter that Gainsbourg’s grave, circumspect, haunted performance made her “Jane incarnate.” The greatest challenge for any adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel rests with the title character. Jane Eyre is a heroine we come to love for her introspection, her questioning nature, her voice (which we experience intimately in the novel’s use of first-person narrative and direct address). None of these are qualities that register easily on film, where the self-contained, long-suffering Jane can all too easily come across as a passive drip.
Now, Cary Joji Fukunaga, the young director of the immigration drama Sin Nombre, has chosen 20-year-old Australian actress Mia Wasikowska ( Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) as his Jane. Wasikowska’s wispy, ethereal beauty at first makes this seem like a poor choice, given that Jane’s much-mentioned “plainness” figures importantly in the plot. But makeupless and unsmiling, her hair coiled in a low, middle-parted bun, Wasikowska has the severe gaze of an early photograph. She’s not “a little toad,” as one uncharitable character calls Jane in the early pages of the novel, but she’s no plum-lipped Keira Knightley either.
Fukunaga’s vision of Jane Eyre is refreshingly un-Gothic. Though all the story elements are in place for a thunder-on-the-moors-style gloomfest (and though there are, in fact, several thunderstorms on moors), this film is low on Romantic atmospherics and flooded with natural light. The cinematography by Adriano Goldman recalls the look of Jane Campion’s Bright Star, another literary love story that incorporated nature not just as a pretty backdrop but as a thematic element; here, the lead couple’s volatile relationship seems inextricably tied to the changing landscape around them. This Jane Eyre is as lucid and matter-of-fact as a film can be whose story hinges on brooding gentlemen with secrets and muffled screams from the attic.
Summarizing the plot of Jane Eyre seems pointless. Even those few who haven’t read it in high-school English class (where it makes for a surprisingly rip-roaring YA novel) probably grasp the basic outlines of the story. Jane, a plain-looking, intelligent, cruelly neglected orphan, moves through a series of different miserable circumstances (pitiless aunt, grim boarding school, lodging with lovesick curate) until she winds up at Thornfield, the isolated estate of the bachelor Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Jane acts as governess to his ward, Adele Varens (Romy Settbon Moore), who may be the fruit of Rochester’s dalliance with a French dancer. Over time Jane’s relationship with her initially forbidding employer grows from barbed exchanges to shared confidences, and finally into love. But those sounds coming from the attic aren’t just the beams settling. …
Moira Buffini’s script errs on the side of being too spare at times—these are characters of such few words that their motivations can seem opaque. But leaving the odd blank for the viewer to fill in was more merciful than cramming every available space with verbiage, incidental music or, worse, voiceover. Wasikowska is the revelation here—her wary, intelligent face tells us volumes about this abused but unbowed young woman. But the small roles are also beautifully cast: Jamie Bell as the solemn young curate, Judi Dench as Rochester’s loyal housekeeper, Sally Hawkins as Jane’s vain, greedy, ultimately pitiable aunt.
Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds) has chops enough to pursue any role he wants (his Basterds character, an English film critic turned David Nivenesque spy, was one of the best things in that movie). But if Fassbender took the low road and chose to make a career as the thinking woman’s literary dreamboat, I wouldn’t complain. Here he makes for a transfixing, if curiously unreadable, romantic hero. Rather than brooding heavily in the style of Orson Welles or William Hurt, he plays the character as a maddening quick-change artist: one minute he’s solicitous and tender, the next sarcastic and cutting. As in the novel, Rochester’s temperament is so mercurial that he effectively functions for stretches as the story’s villain, a never-quite-resolved tension that works better on the page than onscreen. But the film’s ambiguous ending seems curiously appropriate to its status as the latest in a long line of adaptations. If this Jane Eyre ended on a settled note, there’d be no need for the next.