‘Jane Eyre,’ a new cinematic chapter: Director, star offer fresh look at Brontë’s heroine
The new “Jane Eyre’’ apparently stars Mia Wasikowska in the title role. If you’re looking for the long, blond, post-adolescent gazelle of “Alice in Wonderland’’ and “The Kids Are All Right,’’ you’ll search in vain. This Jane has dull brown hair and a hard, level gaze; she suggests nothing so much as a lethal mouse. How does an actress make herself appear shorter? I have no idea, but I do know this is one of the better Jane Eyres I’ve seen onscreen, a conception that forsakes movie-groomed glamour for a plainer, less compromised beauty.
The same could be said of this adaptation from director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre’’), an unexpected but quietly confident second feature that dramatizes Charlotte Brontë’s classic gothic romance from the inside out. Emotions, repressed and then set free, drive this “Jane Eyre,’’ and what the film loses in epic resonance it gains in inner strength. This may not be the greatest movie version of the novel, but it’s possibly the truest.
“What’s your tale of woe? All governesses have a tale of woe,’’ Rochester (Michael Fassbender) teases his new employee, and the film dutifully sketches in the Dickensian cruelties that Brontë used to give young Jane her heart and spine. The film stints on these early sequences, with such expert players as Sally Hawkins (mean Mrs. Reed) and Simon McBurney (meaner Mr. Brocklehurst) shuttled on and off stage, and little Helen Burns (Freya Parks) kicking the bucket before she’s even had a proper cough.
But everyone wants to get to Thornfield Hall, that jumble of battlements and guilt lorded over by Edward Fairfax Rochester and haunted by a living ghost. Here “Jane Eyre’’ doesn’t disappoint. The estate is swathed in beautiful gloom, and its master is enigmatic, brooding, rudely perceptive. Movie Rochesters are never as plug-ugly as Brontë wrote him — producers figure he has to be handsome if we’re to fall for him — but Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds’’) isn’t a matinee idol and he conveys the wounded privateness of the man. His Rochester and Wasikowska’s Jane are so eerily attuned to each other that the film lacks much of the romantic suspense we associate with the story. Everyone else just falls away; even Judi Dench takes a rare back seat as the warmhearted housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax.
Still, there are flaming drapes and shrieks in the dark and something locked away upstairs. Fukunaga has fiddled with the novel’s structure to the extent of opening with Jane fleeing Thornfield after the dark-and-stormy-night revelations that close the book’s second act. She washes up at the doorstep of the humble missionary St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), and while the film quickly flashes back to earlier events, it peeks in on its heroine’s spiritual healing from time to time. This will probably displease Brontë purists, as will the disappearance of the odd character, scene, or plot twist — Rochester doesn’t dress up as a gypsy in this one, for which we should all be thankful — but it adds greatly to the almost trance-like mood of banked passion.
By contrast, moviegoers who don’t know the book or their literary history will probably come to this expecting another Jane Austen art-house special. Hardly. Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre’’ is both wilder and more muted, and in tone and pacing it most closely resembles 2009’s “Bright Star.’’ Instead of the usual Miramax trappings — the clip-clop of enameled horse-drawn carriages, the topiary vanishing into morning mist, the dresses, the estates — “Jane Eyre’’ avails itself of stark Derbyshire locations and rough-hewn people and props. Fukunaga and his cameraman, Adriano Goldman, use shallow focus to isolate Jane from the luxuriant backgrounds and to lend the story the indeterminacy of a dream. The sound design pays great care to the creak of the trees. Don’t come to this hoping to get your period-movie freak on.
Instead, the drama is where it should be, in Jane’s growing certainty and in the recognition of same by her employer. “Jane Eyre’’ is really about a woman carving a moral and psychological place in an uncaring world — how this “creeping creature,’’ in the words of one upper-class character, is actually a “rare, unearthly thing’’ to herself and anyone else astute enough to notice.
Wasikowska’s portrayal is so flinty yet so finely calibrated it seems freshly felt. The performance lacks self-pity or swooning — for that, look to the 1943 Hollywood version, a magnificent folly featuring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles — and it insists, despite Jane’s love for him, that Rochester come to her on her terms and no one else’s. She accepts being different as the price of being true to herself; the shock is only that someone wants to join her there.
Those shock waves carry over to the audience. For all its period details, the movie feels perched momentously on the threshold of a sense of self-worth that feels strikingly modern. Fukunaga may have made the first “Jane Eyre’’ to draw the connection between gothic and Goth.