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‘Jane Eyre’

Mia Wasikowska in

Young stars shine in a gritty, low-key version of the Bronte perennial.

Between 1910 and 1996, 15 feature films based on Charlotte Bronte’s durable 1847 novel Jane Eyre were produced, a rate of around one every five years. Despite two TV versions in the interim, the 15-year gap since the most recent one had clearly become insupportable, so now the breach has been filled by this moody, smartly handled adaptation justifiably built around Mia Wasikowska, who broke through in last year’s rendition of the equally perennial Alice in Wonderland. Less melodramatic than most adaptations of this tough-minded story of an orphan girl’s arduous journey into womanhood in rural England, the Focus release should elicit particularly ardent reactions from student-aged females and looks poised for a reasonable commercial career on the multiplex great-books circuit.

Given the resilience and unwavering persistence exhibited by their respective heroines, the current film that Jane Eyre most closely resembles is True Grit, which can only work to the new picture’s benefit. Jane’s tenacity and refusal to allow a succession of venal, manipulative, small-minded adults to break her lie at the heart of the story’s enduring appeal. Although her critical assessment of the religious hypocrisy of three key men in her life has essentially been jettisoned — important in that it so profoundly shapes her own religious attitudes — the strong spine of the character and the work itself remains sound and is manifest in every moment of Wasikowska’s strong performance.

On the heels of his impressive debut with the markedly contemporary Sin Nombre — a vivid depiction of Central American immigrants struggling across Mexico on their way to the U.S. — for director Cary Fukunaga to abruptly turn to 19th century English lit costume fare might seem perplexing. But while set in very different times and places, the two stories are very close at their cores, having to do with surviving harsh environments, ill-intentioned individuals and ghastly deprivation on the road to finding a suitable home and a desirable life. They’re both descriptive of the determination to create something from nothing without compromising one’s integrity and sense of self-worth.

Prefacing the linear story with the grown Jane’s distressed flight from a grand house and eventual rescue by a parson (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters, the film’s scenarist Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) boils down the heroine’s unfortunate early years to the bare minimum: her ouster from the lavish home of her hateful aunt (Sally Hawkins) and consignment to the Dickensian horrors of the Lowood charity school for girls, where her best friend dies in her arms.

Intriguingly, Fukunaga and his resourceful cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, visually constrict much of the initial action by tightly composing images of Jane with the use of curtains, door frames and so on, which intensely focuses attention on the characters’ faces and the way they regard and perceive one another. The other visual hallmark is landscapes. With rugged and barren Derbyshire locations standing in for the Yorkshire settings, the sense of isolation, of there being no recourse from the world into which one is born, is strong, and the moderate graininess and desaturation of the images reinforce the feeling of forlorn harshness.

But in a living demonstration of the cliché that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Jane emerges from her trials with a good education and stringent moral values. She also has few prospects, which is why she happily accepts a position at Thornfield, the estate of the mysterious and mercurial Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Crucially, the scenes of Jane and Rochester getting to know each other, with her becoming captivated by his powerful personality and with him increasingly appreciating her ability to cope with his quicksilver intellect and diabolical mood swings, are among the film’s best, well establishing a strong link between them. Gradually, as she tutors Rochester’s young French-speaking ward (Romy Settbon Moore) and is counseled by housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), Jane becomes aware of what haunts Thornfield and what tortures the first man she has loved, leading to her abrupt departure and a new round of self-testing.

Unadorned to the point of physical ordinariness and with copper-colored hair generally pulled back severely, Wasikowska must convey everything about Jane from her posture, the look in her eyes and the tone of her voice. The character’s obstinacy could have become wearisome, but Wasikowska provokes ever-growing admiration for a woman who has learned the virtue of patience but in the end will not submit to what she knows is not right. The proto-feminist aspect of the character has undoubtedly fed the popularity of the book over the years, but in a broader sense Jane is most impressive for how she never sinks to the levels of the limited and downright dreadful people who so often enjoy the upper hand over her.

However, a key aspect of Jane’s makeup, her religiosity, has been sacrificed, perhaps out of fear that modern audiences wouldn’t warm to the issue. Not apparent in the film is how Jane develops her own nondoctrinaire version of faith, largely in reaction to the false or misguided piety of Mr. Brocklehurst, the head of her severe school; St. John Rivers, the rural clergyman who takes a curdled fancy to her; and Rochester himself, whose previous relationships with women leave a great deal to be desired from a moral standpoint.

Fassbender cuts a more prosaic, realistic figure as the tormented, romantic Rochester than did the screen’s most celebrated performer of the role, Orson Welles, in the effective 1944 version. The long, discursive dialogues he instigates in the novel are also boiled down to little more than quips here, but the actor brings power and an assertive presence to the role all the same. Supporting performances are more than serviceable.           

Release date Friday, March 11 (Focus)
Cast Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Simon McBurney, Valentina Cervi
Director Cary Fukunaga
Screenwriter Moira Buffini
Producers Alison Owen, Paul Trijbits
Rated PG-13, 118 Minutes