Best Jane Eyre Ever?

03/09/2011 4:00 AM |

Jane Eyre

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Two qualities finally separate feature Great Works adaptations from their miniseries counterparts: they’re shorter and the photography’s better (or at least more conspicuous). The heaviest lifting falls upon the screenwriter, who must make the initial economizing and emphasizing choices that will, along with the casting of the leads, define the version. Here, Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) satisfactorily snips and rearranges the Currer Bell classic, shoving the often axed St. John Rivers sequence upfront and rolling out the orphan’s trying formative years as flashbacks. It’s a canny way of including all of the novel’s movements while simultaneously tightening, and along with Mia Wasikowska’s remarkable lead performance, and Adriano Goldman’s handsome natural light imagery, the reshuffle gives grounds for this twenty-somethingth screen Eyre.

It never quite tops its desolate opening moments, as Jane flees Thornfield Hall in a sonorous thunderstorm, photogenically stumbling over soggy dales and collapsing on a hill of stone before seeing the beacon of the Rivers siblings’ home, where she’ll recuperate and unfold the story of what led her to this desperate condition. We see the young Jane dismissed with contempt by her Aunt Reed (an against-type Sally Hawkins), who sends her to dreary Lowood School, where the masters are free with a switch. The film then rapidly spirits Jane to Thornfield, where there are secrets in the attic, and she’s governess to the daughter of ill-humored Manor Master Edward Rochester, with whom she’ll form one of the most celebrated loves in English Lit.

As usual, Rochester is handsomer than the malformed “Vulcan” from the novel. Here he’s Michael Fassbender, taking no pains to un-hunk himself, though he glowers gamely. He’s a shade darker, and he broods somewhat more subtly than predecessors Orson Welles and William Hurt, in keeping with director Cary Fukunaga’s stated desire to strip the story down to its dark, Gothic warp and woof. Visually, this means overcast skies, labyrinthine halls lit by one or two candles, some loud, sudden noises, and, following Pride & Prejudice 2005’s lead, buckets of rain. Jane and Edward’s arrested, post-first kiss euphoria is summed up in a brief montage of the unlikely couple cavorting, drawing, and clowning beneath the spring cherry blossoms.

The film necessarily loses much of the book’s humor and latitude with its sacrifice of Jane’s interior commentary, and so emphasizing atmosphere and gloom – making it a mood piece, scored beautifully – makes sense. And Wasikowska, in an admirable and touching performance, is able to speak for the lost text with her expressions of mute frustration, bottled desire, and glimpsed joy. At 21, she’s more like the book’s Jane than some of the pushing-30 actresses who’ve done it before.

Like Hawkins, Fukunaga was a counterintuitive choice by the producers, his only previous feature being the violent Mexican immigrant drama Sin Nombre. He doesn’t make magic; the second half clanks before a rushed finale, and the reveal of the crazy Creole Bertha lacks impact. But give Fukunaga credit for not obnoxiously “blowing the dust off a classic” with young-punk flamboyance. This Jane Eyre both respects the source and presents it in a fresh way. It is worthy.

Opens March 11