"Poor, obscure, plain and little" is how the heroine of "Jane Eyre" describes herself. The latest film of Charlotte Brontë's moody Gothic romance is anything but. There is not a drab image or a middling performance in the piece. The freewheeling adaptation drops needless scenes and spurs the story ahead with galloping momentum.
From the very first shot, this new version frames Jane (Mia Wasikowska, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland") as a character of mystery and drama. We meet her as a young woman on the run in a rural downpour. What peril she is fleeing is unspecified. Jane is taken in by a dour young clergyman (Jamie Bell), and nursed back to health by his sisters, whose Christian charity and curiosity about their new friend run neck-and-neck. Jane is many scenes into her recovery and subsequent adventures before the story circles back to her breathless flight, explaining all.
It's a bold approach, but one that honors Brontë's favorite literary gimmick. She was a master of generating suspense by dropping clues and hints while withholding the secrets we're dying to discover. This flashback-filled adaptation, written by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga, does her proud.
As Jane moves from her loveless childhood into the manor house governess position that was every Victorian orphan girl's glass ceiling, Wasikowska masters the screen actor's magic trick of transfixing our attention while seemingly doing nothing. Her excruciating beauty is tamped down here, but when it blossoms she is a pre-Raphaelite dream in the flesh.
As the cold, taunting master of the house, Mr. Rochester, Michael Fassbender has ice in his smile but fire in his eyes. When he invites Jane to his fireside for fencing-match evening conversations, his tone is brusque and challenging, yet almost intimate. He is decadent, subtly evil, unreachable yet irresistible. Jane, wise beyond her years yet naïve about certain dark aspects of human nature, opens her heart. And then terrible truths come crashing down, impelling that tear-stained dash across a rain-swept Yorkshire moor. Fukunaga wrings every ounce of passion, fury and pain out of the tale.
Adriano Goldman's cinematography makes seemingly haunted Thornfield Manor plausibly spooky, and gives the fires that warm (and imperil) the characters a rich, metaphorical intensity. The impeccable supporting cast includes Simon McBurney as that pious, decadent mole Mr. Brocklehurst and Judi Dench as Thornfield's salt-of-the-earth housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. The standout, though, is Sally Hawkins, casting aside a raft of recent cheeky proletarian roles to play Jane's haughty, malevolent aunt. She is deliciously despicable.
This "Jane Eyre" is unapologetic melodrama shot through with inspiration. Diehard "Twilight" fans looking for a deeper, darker romantic mystery would do well to check it out.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186