You would not be wrong to wonder if it’s even possible to get fired up for a new movie version of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, which has been adapted into some form of motion picture at least once every decade since 1914. But this one, intelligently scripted by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) and directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) has its own fire to spare.
Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) directed the latest version of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester.
You know the drill: A headstrong teenaged governess (Mia Wasikowska), having overcome a really rotten childhood, falls for a brooding lord (Michael Fassbender) with his own dark past. The most important thing to understand about Jane Eyre is that she’s self-possessed, given all that has preceded her arrival at the gloomy estate of one Edward Rochester. This fellow, too, might be called self-possessed, and also a tad temperamental. As he and Jane talk to each other, most of the time in beautifully lofty language, they find themselves engaged in a mutually invigorating battle of wills. A romance between them should therefore seem inevitable, but also unlikely; in addition to the differences of age and social status, there is also that one rather important thing he’s not telling her. Hint: Is that a voice in her head or in the attic?
That Jane, said to be plain, and Rochester, said (by Jane) to be ugly, are portrayed respectively by the un-plain Wasikowska and the un-ugly Fassbender doesn’t impugn Fukunaga’s fidelity to the book. You can just take it for granted that these two characters have a long movie history of interesting but technically inaccurate casting: She’s been played by the likes of Joan Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Samantha Morton; he by the likes of Orson Welles, William Hurt and Timothy Dalton. What matters most is the rapport between them, and with Wasikowska and Fassbender in the roles, it’s electric.
For any pair of actors, this duo is a strange inheritance. Taking Jane Eyre into account along with Fish Tank before it, Fassbender might be seen as settling into that peculiar niche, formerly occupied by Jeremy Irons, of the slender suave Englishman who seems always to be having on-screen affairs with teenaged girls. Well, power to him: He sure is good at it. Wasikowska for her part is as steady and alert as ever, delivering exactly the right blend of wisdom and vulnerability. Having abided Tim Burton’s ultimately shrug-worthy Alice in Wonderland, she finally has the classic reboot that she deserves.
The supporting cast includes strategic applications of Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins and Simon McBurney. The film also benefits from Fukunaga’s reunion with Sin Nombre cinematographer Adriano Goldman, who again shows a keen eye for the inherent expressionism of natural light—another means by which an old story comes newly to life. By being greater than the sum of its parts, this Jane Eyre should stay fresh for a while, at least until the next one.