REVIEW: Visceral Jane Eyre Is All Brontë, and Wholly Alive

Movieline Score: 9

Calling a book a classic is a peculiar damnation, a way of simultaneously placing it on a pedestal and shutting it into a musty old box. As much as we all groan when we hear that yet another great book is set to be "ruined" by some assuredly hapless filmmaker, movies are often the only thing that can save books from themselves -- or, rather, from our calcified ideas of what certain books have to be.

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre has had all sorts of life rafts tossed in its direction, including countless mini-series and a 1996 Franco Zeffirelli version (with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg). But this latest Jane Eyre -- directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who made his feature debut in 2009 with the illegal-immigration drama Sin Nombre -- is the one that reminds us what a visceral experience reading a classic can be: Even as Fukunaga honors the book's quintessential Englishness -- it opens with our heroine feverishly wandering the moors, as if the only sure thing were the native soil beneath her feet -- he also distills the raw animal nature that drives it. When the movie's troubled, secretive hero says of the meek (and very young) governess who has charmed him, "I'm sure she'd regenerate me with a vengeance," you know he's talking about more than her skill at fixing him a nice cup of tea.

That hero, Mr. Rochester, is played by the German-born, Irish-raised actor Michael Fassbender, and his diminutive inamorata, the plain Jane of the title, is Mia Wasikowska (most recently seen in The Kids Are All Right and, before that, Tim Burton's antiseptically wiggy Alice in Wonderland). Even if you've never read Jane Eyre, you pretty much know the story: An impoverished but unabashedly intelligent orphan-girl governess arrives at the estate of a rich, surly, mysterious gentleman, who quickly realizes that this small, seemingly mouselike creature is the only human being on the planet who can understand him. In one of the most ardent lines ever committed to paper (and one that defies any mid-19th-century male view of women's inferiority), he welcomes her into his life -- "My equal is here, and my likeness" -- with a sense of near-mystical wonder.

Is it just me, or is it getting hot in here? Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is tuned to the beating pulse of that line, without ever resorting to dumb, bodice-ripping cliches. The script is by Moira Buffini (who adapted Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe), and though she's preserved the strange elegance of Brontë's prose, there's no stiffness in the characters' dialogue -- they sound like real people from a different time, not like hostages who've been kidnapped from the page and slapped up on the screen against their will. Shot by Adriano Goldman, the picture has a strong sense of place: You can almost smell the dense mossiness of the misty countryside or the evanescent sweetness of blossoming orchards, and the movie's interiors, hung with dense velvets or lit by cozy fires, are as claustrophobic or as welcoming as they need to be. Fukunaga and Buffini have taken some liberties with the book's structure, plucking out a few of its key elements and reassembling them into flashbacks and flash-forwards. But their choices are never jarring, and they may even even heighten the mystery for those lucky ones who have no idea where the story is headed.

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  • Jen Yamato says:

    Great film, great review, Stephanie! Fukunaga's done a marvelous job with Jane Eyre --those scenes between Wasikowska and Fassbender made my pulse quicken faster than any film in recent memory. H-O-T. First film of 2011 that I actually want to see twice or more.

  • Quirky- says:

    Jane Eyre + Wasikowska + Fassbender + Sally Hawkins & Jamie Bell = Count me in.

  • Serena Bramble says:

    Can't wait to see this, Steph. I was going to watch the Zefferilli version for my first faithful adaptation of Bronte's novel but this take sounds so much more interesting. Plus, horses aren't the only mammals hot for Michael Fassbender. 😉