A solitary figure, clad in gray, runs, stumbles and weeps across a rainswept moor. Yes, it's "Jane Eyre" time again. One of the most frequently adapted period pieces from the golden age of the corset is back, with Mia "Alice in Wonderland" Wasikowska in the title role.
The Jane served up by Wasikowska and director Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) is a fiery, spirited woman in what amounts to open revolt against a woman’s lot in life in early 19th century Britain. She longs to travel, keep good company, and not be enslaved to a man or a class. She’s willing to go running off to get it.
Jane is rescued from her run by a kindly parson (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. She won’t tell them anything about her past, or even her real name.
Through flashbacks, we learn her “tale of woe:” the hard childhood, shunned by a cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins); the monstrous boarding school where she saw death and felt the discipline of the cane; and the tortured year of service as governess to a child in the care of the wealthy, mysterious and brusque Mr. Rochester.
Michael Fassbender makes for a handsome Rochester who lets us see that his aloof, icy manners (lack of manners) are the product of something in his past.
Wasikowska’s Jane is perfectly demure and submissive to his power, but also a poker-faced woman-child of 19 who lets slip her disapproval of the way he treats people. Her spine attracts him, so he is more than happy to use her to “distract me from the mire of my thoughts.” A near-fatal fire makes Rochester melt and Jane warm to him a bit.
This “Jane Eyre” has a problem most “Jane Eyres” have: Why is she so drawn to this ill-tempered, rude and cruel boor? Every version I can recall seeing has this difficulty. In Charlotte Bronte’s time, the fact that he was handsome and rich was perhaps enough to answer that question. But today, with a Jane willing to speak her mind, we want more – compassion, heat, pity and desperation.
The story’s “big reveal” is common currency now, so Fukunaga wisely plays that down, giving us more of the household (Judi Dench is head housekeeper), Rochester’s efforts to include his favorite employee in his social circle, and Jane’s solitary life after running away from all this.
It’s a lovely looking film, period perfect in manner, look and speech. And Wasikowska makes a marvelously plain “Jane.”
However Fukunaga went from Latino migration thriller to this job, he does well by “Jane Eyre” – making the most of the limited action and capitalizing on the inherent spookiness of the tale. Pretty as a postcard, it reminds us that women other than Jane Austen wrote timeless, rich tales of romance in an age when women were little more than property.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Running time: 1:55
Rated: PG-13; thematic elements including a nude image, brief violent content