Not-so-plain Jane

A fresh approach to Charlotte Brontë’s signature novel

See Jane brood.

See Jane brood.

Jane Eyre
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender and Judi Dench. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Pageant Theatre and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

The new film version of Jane Eyre is one of the few movie adaptations of a classical English novel that preserves the rough vitality and emotional starkness of the original.

Charlotte Brontë’s indelible mixture of smoldering social drama and gothic romance has proven irresistible to the movies—nearly two dozen versions have appeared over the years. In this one, director Cary Joji Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini give us Brontë’s gothic melodrama in exquisitely somber and understated form—romance combined with bracing psychological grit.

Mia Wasikowska (in the title role) and Michael Fassbender (as the famously bedeviled Edward Rochester) are both superb within the film’s incisively scaled-down characterizations of the two provocatively mismatched figures who are at the heart of the story’s romantic appeal. And their remarkable performances are fully immersed in vividly evoked landscapes—social as well as natural.

Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman give richly observed attention to the moors and manor houses of the story. And Buffini’s script, which reframes Brontë’s narrative via a flashback structure, starts Jane’s story in the midst of her penultimate dramatic crisis—which puts her adrift in the moors and needing yet another domicile right from the start. That approach eases up the tempting melodramatic sensationalism of Brontë’s novel, and it also creates a sharper focus on the emerging facets of Jane’s character—from abused orphan to gifted governess to darkly subdued romantic heroine.

Buffini’s script also foregrounds the proto-feminist elements of Jane’s character, and brings a sobering note of social realism to a small multitude of pungent secondary characters. Fukunaga and his cast remain true to Buffini’s rigorously unsentimental take on Brontë throughout. And it all pays off in a quietly magical way—we get a lot more psychological realism than is usually the case with gothic romance, classical or not, and the passions involved seem more genuine as a result.

Judi Dench plays the film’s crucial intermediary character, the ambiguously devoted housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, and her deft, understated performance stands out in the impressive array of supporting players. Sally Hawkins, as a complacently evil aunt, and Jamie Bell, as the mostly sympathetic minister St. John Rivera, also deserve special mention.

Wasikowska, who had the title role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and a key part in last year’s The Kids Are All Right, gives us a remarkably complete Jane Eyre—the mixture of plainness and self-possessed intensity, the wary intelligence and quiet indomitability. Fassbender’s blend of stoic reserve and smoldering fury ensures that his Rochester is psychologically credible as both romantic and tragic hero, and sufficiently possessed of lucid humanity to make him, at least in retrospect, a good match for Jane.

All in all, Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre belongs in the rarefied company of such exceptionally smart and earthy literary adaptations as Roger Michell’s Persuasion (1995) and Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009).