Director Cary Fukunaga perfectly captures Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel with turns from Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender
I have a very specific list of most crush-worthy literary characters, and it goes like this: Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel, Romeo (duh) and Heathcliff from “Wuthering Heights” are the top three, with Mr. Darcy from “Pride and Prejudice,” Hamlet, Brick from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Aragorn from “Lord of the Rings” and Noah from “The Notebook” rounding out the rest.
I could give you a list of inspirational female characters, too – and even I’m ashamed of a Nicholas Sparks character being on my favorites list – but those men have passion and dedication and morality, all the kinds of things you would want in a perfect guy. And it’s how director Cary Fukunaga handles Mr. Rochester, the dreamy-yet-tortured master of Thornfield Hall, and his slow-building love affair with proto-feminist Jane Eyre that makes the latest adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel so fantastic.
“Jane Eyre” has been adapted numerous times before – as a silent film, a musical, a 1944 version with Orson Welles, a 1996 version with a young Anna Paquin. But Fukunaga excels here by capturing the novel’s darkness and solemnity, the creepiness inherent in Bronte’s Gothic story. Trailers for the film paired it with music from Italian horror classic “Suspiria” and tried to play up the novel’s supernatural elements, and while those were overkill, the film has some of its best moments in those instances of isolation and fear. It’s not a blood-soaked slasher flick like “Suspiria” was, but this “Jane Eyre” uses slow pacing and silence to its benefit.
Oh, and the insanely good-looking and intensely dynamic Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester? Yeah, that’s a benefit, too.
If you haven’t read the 400-plus-page “Jane Eyre,” power through it; that prior knowledge make you understand the greatness of this adaptation so much better. If you can’t stomach 38 chapters, however, the film stands on its own, beginning with Jane’s childhood (played by Amelia Clarkson) as an orphan being taken care of by her aunt, Sarah. With children of her own, Sarah couldn’t care less about Jane, allowing her son to hit her and locking Jane in a room when she misbehaves – when a huge cloud of smoke and dust blows from the room’s fireplace, Jane is terrified, smashing her head against the door. Aunt Sarah? She just brushes off Jane’s obvious pain and says she has a “heart of spite.”
Soon Jane is sent off to a horrific boarding school, where switch-wielding mistresses beat the girls and clergyman Mr. Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney) works to ostracize Jane from her classmates. The years pass, and eventually the teenage Jane (now played by Mia Wasikowska) is old enough to leave the school, now employed as a governess for a young ward at Thornfield Hall, a once-majestic house isolated on the top of a hill and surrounded by overgrown forests.
When Jane shows up is when stuff starts getting weird. The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), is grateful for company in the often-empty mansion; Jane’s student says a vampire roams the manor. And when Mr. Rochester (Fassbender) shows up for a rare visit, he expects the worst from Jane: “What’s your tale of woe?” are some of his first words to her, sparking an initial dislike between the two. He’s too negative, she’s too honest; after their first meeting, she decides “he’s very abrupt and changeful.” But when he shows up again at the manor with another girl on his arm, the beautiful and vapid Blanche (Imogen Poots), Jane realizes her feelings have morphed into something more – and perhaps Mr. Rochester’s have, too.
The will-they-or-won’t-they then dominates the film, a fantastic push-pull relationship that relies entirely on Fassbender’s and Wasikowska’s subtleties and nuances. The glances, the long looks, the body language – it’s all romantic, sensuous and wonderful without being overtly sexual. Coupled with the film’s creepier touches – everything always seems foggy and cold, like something out of Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow,” and the supernatural effects are spot-on – the film creates a solid balance. And Jane’s feminist leanings aren’t forgotten, either: She hasn’t seen much of the world but she’s resolute in her morals and ideals, telling Mrs. Fairfax, “I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man.” Such ideas, in the 1840s? Props to Charlotte.
“Jane Eyre” is rated PG-13, mainly for the drama here: The cruelty Jane faces as a child, the terrible secret Mr. Rochester hides, the overall somber tone of everything. The emotional elements are the toughest: A girl dies in another one’s arms, students are beaten by teachers, Jane faces acute rejection from Mr. Rochester’s upper-crust friends. There’s also a scene with a gushing, festering wound; some ghostly elements, like various screams throughout a house; and a few kisses, as well as a painting of a nude woman.
Most of the charm in “Jane Eyre” comes from the source material, which was so ahead of its time when it came to gender relations, female morality and the multi-layered dynamics of love. Fukunaga does a service to audiences by understanding those complexities and bringing them to life onscreen – whether through a dour moor or a blooming garden, a lonely manor or a stolen glance between lovers, “Jane Eyre” gets it all right.