That woman with the braids on her head, struggling to walk through lashing rain, falling in the mud, determinedly fleeing we don’t know what – in the dramatic opening of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s new film, she could be any fiery 19th century heroine, from Tess of the D’Urbervilles to Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Yet within minutes we see she could only be Jane Eyre.
Mia Wasikowska may be the most self-possessed Jane ever, and Michael Fassbender the most romantic Rochester, yet together they seem miraculously true in this dazzling new version, which hands us the essence of Charlotte Bronte’s fanatically-adored novel.
Bronte has given readers many different reasons for responding to her story of the unloved orphan turned governess, who falls for her gruff employer, only to find on their wedding day that he has a mad wife stashed in a hidden room. The wonder of Fukunaga’s film - faithful overall, inventive when it needs to be - is that it weaves all those elements together, capturing the novel’s over-the-top romanticism, its exquisite sense of tortured emotions, its fairy-tale and Gothic plot twists, its moralistic sense that happiness comes at a cost.
Wasikowska is an ideal, complex Jane, maybe the best. As governess to Rochester’s ward at Thornfield Hall, she is reticent and subdued, outspoken when pressed – she looks everyone in the eye -- sure of her own worth even when the world undervalues her. It is a flawless, graceful, natural performance.
At first Fassbender hardly seems like a romantic hero; muttonchops never make a man look as attractive as he might. But as he becomes passionate about Jane, a lock of his hair seems always to be falling over his forehead. (See some earlier, too-dreamy Rochesters here.) He may be romanticized - Jane herself often sees him that way - yet Fassbender lets us glimpse the conflict under the surface.
Their scenes together are the soul of the film, simply, directly shot. Their first, long conversation by the fire is novelistic in texture. “What is your tale of woe?” he asks and proud Jane insists she does not have one. Their love scenes evoke iconic images; think of Rhett Butler leaning over Scarlett O’Hara in the famous poster for Gone With the Wind, but without Atlanta blazing in the background. When Rochester begs her to defy convention, to stay despite his wife, and she refuses, we can feel both their hearts break.
Of course, we know how the story ends. “Reader, I married him” is one of the most famous lines in all literature. Moira Buffini’s thoroughly cinematic screenplay pulls off the near-impossible job of taking us through Jane Eyre without Jane’s voice to guide us. Her major change is to juggle the chronology.
When we first see Jane fleeing through the rain, she has discovered the truth about Rochester’s wife, and is soon taken in by the wet-blanket minister St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell, more mutton-chops) and his sisters. The major advantage: Wasikowska takes command right away, no waiting for the child-actress to grow up. In brief flashbacks we see Jane’s miserable childhood at Lowood school, and in the extended flashback that is most of the film, her life at Thornfield.
Judi Dench is finely understated as Thornfield’s caring housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. The ancient house is shot in subdued colors and lighting, suggesting its dark secrets without veering into gloom. Fukunaga handles the story’s Gothic touches with flair and restraint, even when Jane is saving Rochester from the bed his wife has set on fire. (This is only the director's second feature, following Sin Nombre.) Our one look at the wife is the only scene that goes too far; her wild hair and eyes are enough, she really doesn’t have to eat flies.
There are rare moments when Jane’s lines sound jarringly contemporary. “I wish a woman could have action in her life like a man,” she tells Mrs. Fairfax as they stare out a window at the wide world. But whatever flaws the film has are minor. Embracing Bronte’s wildest emotions, this glorious Jane Eyre proves that sometimes a movie can make you love the novel more.
Here is a clip of the first swoony romantic scene, after Jane has saved Rochester from the fire: