"All governesses have a tale of woe. What's yours?" the brooding Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) asks his new employee, Jane Eyre, in the latest screen adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's gothic novel. Jane (Mia Wasikowska) doesn't take Mr. Rochester's bait. Despite the governess's miserable girlhood, Jane voices no complaints. She clearly believes that to confess a sob story would be like sacrificing some of her integrity.
Director Cary Fukunaga's cerebral and passionate version of Jane Eyre stirringly traces the heroine's slow yet determined attempt to earn personal liberation. Moira Buffini's screenplay traces how Jane endured an unusually harsh upbringing during a time when young women had precious little power or opportunity. Played as a girl by Amelia Clarkson, Jane grows up parentless and despised by a rich, icy aunt (Sally Hawkins) who sends her niece from a loveless mansion to an even more severe girl's school. At one point, young Jane spends a day standing on "the pedestal of infamy" for a trivial rebellion. The film sets up a tension between 19th-century rural England's hell-and-damnation religion and the superstitions that seem to lurk in the shadows.
Spooky tales echo in the halls of Mr. Rochester's sprawling manor Thornfield, where Jane takes her first job after leaving school. Jane spends her days teaching Mr. Rochester's young French ward, who could be his daughter, although the film leaves the implication vague. Mr. Rochester alludes to a dark secret in his past, while rumor holds that a spectral figure stalks the halls at night. The script includes red herrings, such as a set of neck wounds that hint at vampirism.
Fukunaga places the heart of Jane Eyre in the volleying conversations between Jane and Mr. Rochester, whose budding attraction and mutual respect bloom almost subliminally. In the second half of the film, the pair discusses Jane's wages, and Mr. Rochester asks, "Do you trust me to keep it?" "Not a whit, sir," she replies, with just the faintest twinkle in her eye.
Jane Eyre's banter seldom feels like forward, modern-day flirtation. Throughout the film, we empathize with Jane's fraught position and her uncertainty about her intimidating but sexy employer. Despite its deliberately paced approach to some oft-filmed material, Jane Eyre effectively puts the modern moviegoer inside its heroine's metaphorical corset.
While Jane Eyre hews closely to Brontë's plot, it arrives in theaters at a time when Twilight mania has launched numerous imitators, including Beastly and Red Riding Hood. Jane Eyre's depths offer a lesson in tortured romance and gothic mood to Edward and Bella fans. The rugged, implosive Fassbender conveys Mr. Rochester's mercurial complexities, making the character sympathetic yet difficult to forgive. His moodiness isn't just a pose.
Fukunaga photographs Wasikowska to emphasize her pallor. "She's white as death!" exclaims a Good Samaritan early on. The Alice in Wonderland actress has beautiful, delicate features, but also a haunted aspect, as if her roles have lived through terrible ordeals. She captures Jane's sense of self-preservation, but also her dawning pleasures. When she and Mr. Rochester hold hands for the first time, there's an almost erotic sense of transgression; you want to applaud the first time they kiss and the winds start sweeping across the hills.
Mr. Rochester's secrets eventually come out, but Jane Eyre keeps the plot's lurid, Poe-like aspects to Jane's self-discovery and personal empowerment. Recurring shots of Jane's window at Thornfield illustrate her changing fortunes. First we see her through the cage-like frame. Later we notice the window cracked open and a curtain fluttering in the wind like an invitation. Finally, it's thrown open completely and the distant horizon beckons with a promise of freedom.