“A plain tale with few pretensions” is the way Charlotte Brontë, writing under the pseudonym Currer Bell, described her 1847 novel, but that phrase more aptly describes Jane Eyre than Jane Eyre. Emotionally lush, Brontë’s histrionic, gothic melodrama is raw rather than plain, which is why more than two dozen directors, eager for malleable material, have tried adapting it for film or TV. It is also the mother of all chick flicks.
For his second feature, following Sin Nombre, a harrowing account of desperate immigration from Central America to the United States, director Cary Fukunaga moves to the moors of Derbyshire. Befitting his background as a cinematographer, this Jane Eyre is above all a visual experience: artfully composed, framed, lit, and shot. The screenplay by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) begins well past the middle of things, with a distraught Jane fleeing Thornfield Hall after discovering Mr. Rochester’s shameful secret. It then retraces its heroine’s progress from an abused and lonely childhood to the flight from Thornfield. In the script’s abrupt conclusion the narrative circle is broken, as poor, beleaguered Jane attains wealth, love, and happiness.
Fukunaga is attentive to class distinctions, to how Judi Dench’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, stands above the army of domestic servants but below her enigmatic but aristocratic employer, Mr. Rochester. Yet Jane Eyre is most notably a feminist counterpoint to 19th-century coming-of-age tales by Charles Dickens and Horatio Alger in which pluck and luck enable pitiful male orphans to take command of their fates. Brontë’s novel is a Cinderella story celebrating the triumph of a despised girl-child, though, within the confines of patriarchal England, she finds vindication only through marriage to a blue-blood hunk. Mia Wasikowska’s Jane is homeless but homely, a straight-talking innocent who has never seen a city or kissed a man. She is naturally attracted to Michael Fassbender’s rugged, roguish Rochester, the worldly, imperious master of the manor in which she is hired to be governess to his ward. Rochester’s attraction to Jane, as the agent of his regeneration who stands apart from the conventional beauties he consorts with (and from the exotic madwoman in his attic), is less likely.
However, this is a film in which coincidences abound; a rich, generous uncle suddenly materializes, and the disembodied voice of beloved Rochester beckons to Jane at the moment priggish St. John Rivers (Bell) proposes a man-and-wife mission to spread the gospel in India. Improbable? You do not ask a fantasy to obey the laws of verisimilitude. And you certainly do not laugh. Within the ponderous, oneiric execution of a young woman’s desires, there is no room for humor. Check your doubts at the weighty gates of Thornfield Hall.
Dir. Cary Fukunaga; writ. Moira Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë; feat. Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench (PG-13)