When tasked with reimagining Charlotte Brontë's immortal "Jane Eyre," which seems to be adapted somewhere, by someone, every couple of years, some key decisions must be made. The impulse that seems to have seized director Cary Fukunaga was to emphasize the gothic horror elements of the story, while making the narrative more structurally complex, allowing for more of Jane's back story to slip into the movie (it's the stuff most commonly left out of the multitude of adaptations).
These decisions could have been disastrous, since the source material is taken so seriously by literary types the world over. (A gamble is still a gamble, even if your characters are wearing frilly dresses.) Thankfully, Fukunaga has pulled off something miraculous – a tale draped in gothic horror that's actually, you know, haunting. Under his skilled direction (and the input of his collaborators), he's crafted a "Jane Eyre" that feels both classic and utterly fresh.
The film opens with Jane (Mia Wasikowska from "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Kids Are All Right") walking across a bleak English countryside (are there any other kinds?). She eventually lands on the doorstep of a helpful minister (Jamie Bell) who lives with his two sisters. They ask the waif, clearly alone and in need of some assistance, what her story is. She tells them.
The first set of flashbacks include Jane's childhood, growing up as an orphan in the company of a cruel aristocratic aunt, and then sent away to an even more cruel boarding school in which the Dickensian scamps are regularly beaten and humiliated. In one harrowing sequence, a schoolmate succumbs to illness while sharing a bed with Jane.
Back in the present, the priest and his sisters listen raptly to this tale, which gives us a chance to cut away from the period so that when we flash back, we see Jane all grown up and leaving the school to go work as a governess for a rich man named Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). The chief housemaid (Judi Dench) lets Jane know the routine (she'll be looking after a young French girl, mostly, whose mother meant something to Rochester) and for a while, we see her just working the house.
Wasikowska, her hair pulled back and split down the middle, the color of a muddy puddle, has a genuinely expressive face, and we watch a kind of inner peace settle over her as she eases into her life of domesticity. The landscape might be spooky, with Fukunaga making the most out of every cloud of clumpy fog drifting over the monochromatic moor and milking every creaky door for all its surround-sound worth, but Jane is, if not happy, then at the very least content.
And then that motherfucker Rochester shows up. It's been noted that Fassbender might be too handsome for the part, and while we'd never deny Fassbender's handsomeness (like, ever), what he lacks in physical intimidation, he more than makes up for in the edge of his performance. There's a snarl underneath every syllable, a mixture of pain, regret and exactitude that more than makes up for any overt physical transformation that the actor could have gone through to appear more toadish.
In his relationship with the considerably younger Jane, too, he strikes the right balance of menace and genuine romantic enthusiasm. It's not quite up to the level of severe awkwardness that he brought to Andrea Arnold's mesmerizing "Fish Tank," but it's pretty close. You can feel Jane's attraction to the cad more fully because Fassbender is so cute (and can feel her repulsion just as dimensionally). He's aloof, cold, and full of dastardly secrets – what woman could resist?
As their relationship develops, so too does "Jane Eyre," with its emphasis on gothic horror tropes pushed even further and the intensity of the situations given significantly more oomph. A mysterious fire engulfs a bedchamber, someone is attacked in a way that looks a whole lot like a vampire bite, and the intense nightly creaks become even more terrifying. (Dario Marianelli's uniformly excellent score aids in the overwhelming sense of dread, too).
But for all the movie's not-inconsiderable style, the third act does away with all of the red herrings and creaky spookiness to emphasize, instead, the emotionality of the piece. It's a startling shift, a tonal overhaul bold in its naked sentimentality that thankfully never strays into the drippy saccharine that mirrors the fact that a proto-feminist tale like 'Eyre' is being told in a decidedly feminist world. If the movie is an emotional rollercoaster, then its final act is a hands-in-the-air freefall, one that Fukunaga choreographs beautifully and Wasikowska and Fassbender bring to life with the utmost sincerity and depth. Even though it's been told a thousand times before, "Jane Eyre" will make even the hardest heart swoon. [A-]