Film Review: Jane Eyre

Lovers of Charlotte Bronte's classic will luxuriate in the spooky Gothic atmosphere, but the film's pallid Jane fails to nail a character who changed how women view themselves.

It takes either industrial-strength confidence or simple chutzpah to tackle a film remake of Jane Eyre, the beloved 1847 novel by Charlotte Bronte that no less a figure than Virginia Woolf declared un-putdownable. There exist 18 film versions of Jane—the 1944 one with Joan Fontaine especially memorable—and nine made for television. Now, with only one feature behind him—the affecting Sin Nombre, about immigrant migrations—33-year-old Cary Fukunaga delivers his own take on the iconic tale, casting Mia Wasikowska as Jane, Michael Fassbender as Edward Rochester, Judi Dench as his goodhearted housekeeper, and some prize English real estate playing itself.

Fassbender and Dench are stellar actors who can hardly put a foot wrong, and the foggy expanses and howling winds of the Derbyshire dales, where much of the film was shot, are a filmmaker's best friend. Sadly, though, this Jane Eyre, though visually stunning, is a kind of classics-lite version, punching up the Gothic horror aspect of the story while stumbling in its attempt to capture its indelible characters. The film's weakest link is Wasikowska in a crucial bit of miscasting.

Fukunaga includes the touchstones common to all the previous film versions: Rochester thrown by his spooked horse; the screams at night and the burning bed chamber; Jane running across the barren moors. And the script closely follows the original story. The orphaned Jane is raised by her cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins, cast against type) and does time in the harrowing Lowood school before being accepted as a governess—the period's avenue for penurious women—in Thornfield, the hulking manse of the brooding, Byronic Mr. Rochester. There, Jane dares to imagine, rightly, that she has formed a deep connection with the master of the house, despite competition from the alluring, beribboned Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots), a woman of Rochester's social class. But after discovering the nasty business in Rochester's attic, Jane lights out for the moors, finding shelter in the austere home of cleric St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. There, she weighs the role of missionary's wife that he offers against unfinished business at Thornfield.

Rather than follow the novel's linear storyline, screenwriter Moira Buffini chooses to tell most of the story in flashback, beginning with Jane's year-long stay with Rivers, a section that in the novel arrives late. Theoretically, this strategy brushes the cobwebs off the narrative and pitches you straight into Jane's crisis, catering to today's impatience with a leisurely rollout. But Buffini's shuffled timeline sometimes proves confusing; even viewers familiar with the novel may initially struggle to determine past from present.

The film's major misstep, though, is the casting of It-Girl Wasikowska. True, she did credible work in The Kids Are All Right, and at 18, she's exactly Jane's age. But Wasikowska doesn't yet have the acting chops to capture a character whose insistence on her own self-worth, seemingly arrived from nowhere, announced a revolutionary new heroine. She loses us from the earliest scenes, when she huddles weeping in the bracken and you half expect her to text, “OMG, there's some old freak in the attic.”

Wasikowska's underpowered turn makes Rochester's attraction to her somewhat implausible. In the crucial scenes where they match wits and she keeps her dignity despite her lowly status, he hasn't enough to play against. You wonder why he doesn't just hit the Continent with saucy Blanche Ingram. And the always-charismatic Fassbender has been misdirected to make Rochester seem more like a studio exec with heartburn than a man tormented by a tragic mistake. Wasikowska, with her abbreviated face, oddly reminiscent of Jeremy Renner, and Fassbender, with his great leonine head, are also physically mismatched and seem spliced together from two different movies.

Still, this Jane Eyre will likely find an audience among those hungry for a Bronte fix, as well as fans of Gothic atmosphere and tropes from horror films. In fact, perhaps the film's true stars are towering, dank Haddon Hall as Thornfield, the go-to pile for English period films, and those undulating moors that make romantics of us all. The tech package is superb, using natural lighting for the fog-wreathed cliffs and dark bracken, and fireplaces, candles and oil lanterns for the interiors.