A solitary figure, clad in gray, stumbles and weeps across a rainswept moor.
Yes, it’s “Jane Eyre” time again. One of the most frequently-film 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. And she’s willing to go running off in the rain 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.
But in a long series of 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 long before he confesses, “I drag through life a capital error.”
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 — just 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 difficulty crossing this threshold. 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 as spirited and willing to speak her mind as this one, we want something more — compassion, heat, pity and desperation. At least Rochester’s motivations are clearer than ever in this version, if perhaps a trifle removed from the Bronte novel.
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.” In the space of one year, we’ve seen her right at home as an unflappable tourist in “Wonderland,” a wise-beyond-her-years teen in “The Kids are All Right,” and now this. She seems closer to the Bronte ideal of Jane than most interpretations, though that does contribute to the frostiness of Jane’s May-September romance with the much older Rochester.
And however Fukunaga managed the leap 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’s also a calling card picture and one that reminds us that women other than Jane Austen wrote timeless, rich tales of romance in an age when women were little more than property.
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins, Simon McBurney, Imogen Poots
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Running time: 2:00