This umpteenth filmization of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel is refined, elegant, and just a bit too tame to capture the simmering passion of the original. Still, among the features based on the book, it stands quite high, and is certainly far preferable to its immediate predecessor, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 misfire starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt.
This version, skillfully adapted by Moira Buffini and directed tastefully by Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Sin nombre”), begins not with the unhappy childhood of the heroine (Mia Wasikowska) but with her abrupt departure from remote Thornfield, where she’d been serving as governess to the ward of its volatile master Rochester (Michael Fassbender), and her being taken in by missionary St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. From that point her story is recounted in flashback, occasionally interrupted by episodes with Rivers.
The narrative is the familiar one of the orphaned Jane (Amelia Clarkson) being sent by her heartless aunt (Sally Hawkins) to a brutal school run by a rigid headmaster (Simon McBurney) and then taking the position at Thornfield, where she’s welcomed by hearty housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench). It then follows the development of the relationship between the brusque landowner and his strong but vulnerable employee, culminating in their aborted wedding and the revelation of the reason why he’s so raw-tempered and why she departs so suddenly, segueing into the “present” again and the resolution of the romance.
Apart from tinkering with the chronology of the story, the film is very faithful to the book, which is both a blessing and a curse. It means that those wanting a cinematic copy will get it, but also that there’s no sense of freshness on display—except in the performances. Most of the supporting cast, including Dench and Bell, provide standard but solid turns. As embodied by Wasikowska, Jane is a plain, prim young woman, but one whose strength of character and sense of self-worth are always evident. And Fassbender offers an idiosyncratic Rochester—less rough than darkly cynical, clearly a troubled man, and more handsome than most. They manage to make the unlikely relationship Bronte contrived as persuasive as it can be.
From the physical perspective this is an impressive “Eyre.” The locations have the harsh, solitary quality the story demands, and cinematographer Adriano Goldman captures them—and the gloomy interiors—in moody widescreen images marked by careful composition and muted colors. The production design (Will Hughes-Jones), art direction (Karl Probert), set decoration (Tira Jones) and costumes (Michael O’Connor) all contribute admirably to the atmosphere, as does Dario Marianelli’s spare, mournful string score.
One can debate whether a new “Jane Eyre” was really necessary, given the plethora of movie and television versions already available. But though it doesn’t really add much new to the mix, Fukunaga’s film is a solid, respectable option for those looking for a screen adaptation of the famous Bronte book, and better than most.