Dreary, chaste, robust, and full-blooded, Jane Eyre is a dark grey postcard of a film, a time-tested rags-to-riches tale with burning passions and smoldering secrets, spiked with pointed statements about morality, religion, and forgiveness. Neither a fanatical updating nor a stiff exercise in middlebrow respectability, it’s possibly the truest version of a timeless novel.
One’s got to hand it to Charlotte Brontë. One hundred and sixty-four years after she gave hyperkinetic Victorian schoolgirls their first sleepless nights, she’s pulling them in all over again. After sixteen decades, this is something that still grips the heart and the mind. And isn’t the struggle of conscience over fervour ripely emblematic of our times?
As the title character, Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) makes drab seem rad. Pelted with windswept torrents, Jane slices through Thornfield Hall like a razor, exposing herself to shame and everyone else to ridicule. As Mr. Rochester, Jane’s haggard master, Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank) is a crumpled, sarcastic, and defeated man who manages to convince himself that in the wilds of Yorkshire, society’s laws do not apply to him. Their duet of Byronic morbidity and virginal fluster grounds a low-key translation of the Brontë perennial, a stingy, strained, and inescapably sexy narrative told with depth and spirit.
Beauty, along with a sense of mystery, is what audiences expect in a Gothic romance between an abandoned, plucky orphan and a wealthy, mysterious older man with a seriously Gothic secret. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga delivers with carefully composed shots of austere landscapes and shadowy Victorian opulence. There is not a drab image or a middling performance in the piece.
As such, Fukunaga has made Jane Eyre an intimate, thoughtful epic, with moody 100-shades-of-grey cinematography by Adriano Goldman. It forsakes movie-groomed glamour for a plainer, less compromised elegance. And the wide, ferocious landscapes captured by Goldman vividly convey the idea that these damp, freezing moorlands – where Charlotte Brontë and her sisters would all die before the age of 40 – cling to the outer edges of British civilization.
Tastefully adapted for the screen by Moira Buffini, Jane Eyre condenses the source novel into two hours of yearning and regret. The freewheeling and forceful adaptation drops needless scenes and spurs the story ahead with galloping momentum. It is both faithful to Brontë’s classic and distinctively original.
Fukunaga’s feverishly soulful remake of Jane Eyre – wrested from the page and reproduced on screen at least two dozen times before – rises to most challenges, not the least of which is making Wasikowska, a golden child of current cinema, look homely. Using Brontë’s text as the basis for an inquiry into free will versus servitude, Fukunaga mounts a subtly shaded, yet emotionally devastating, examination of what it really means to choose one’s own way. True aficionados will wish the film etched every aspect of the Brontë experience, but that’s a quibble in light of its potent charms.
Jane Eyre is an impossible love story, one of the most romantic ever told; it’s also cold, wild, and about destruction, madness, and loss. Fukanaga captures its divided spirit – and the elemental Brontë emotions – like none before. Complemented by well-conceived visuals, Brontë’s tale of love and woe becomes one well worth repeating. His is a spare, shrewdly acted, especially vital retelling of Jane, and a thoroughly cinematic, intoxicating reimagining of a repertoire standard.