The key to any remake of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is simple: Cast wisely, and all will be well. Director Cary Fukunara follows this rule and ends up with an atmospheric, absorbing version of the classic romance between an abandoned, plucky orphan and a wealthy, mysterious older man with a seriously Gothic secret.
Fukunara has at his disposal Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who played Alice in Wonderland for Tim Burton and appeared as the daughter in the Oscar-nominated family drama The Kids Are All Right. Wasikowska, 21, brings a potent blend of intelligence and vulnerability to this capable Jane, who is nobody’s shrinking violet despite the fact that she was dumped at a young age into a dismal British school by her cruel relations. The damp, inhospitable place chills you with just a look at its moldy walls, but Jane is not fazed, not even when she’s punished or isolated.
“She has a heart of spite,” says her terrible aunt Reed (Sally Hawkins), but the accusation isn’t true. Jane is a deeply moral person; those around her keep trying to break her, and they fail miserably.
But something awful does happen to Jane, as we deduce from our first glimpse of her. The film opens with her traumatized flight from Thornfield Hall, a great house at which she finds work as a governess once she’s out of the dreary school. She lopes across the barren moors and is rescued by St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), an earnest but dull cleric who lives with his sisters. Rivers never teases the truth about Jane’s past out of her, but Fukunara uses flashbacks to show us her dreadful childhood and how she ended up working at the stately home, which belongs to Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender, last seen as a British spy ordering drinks with the wrong three fingers in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds).
Fassbender displays the appropriate heft to play the complex Rochester, a brooding Byronic sort who moves from imperious to intrigued to mocking in just a few moments. Fassbender is especially adept at conveying Rochester’s air of weary dissipation, and Wasikowska is his perfect foil. The actress is hardly plain, but she’ll pass muster by movie standards, and when the two square off there’s no mistaking the fact that she’s his match in every sense but experience. When he asks abruptly, “What’s your tale of woe?” in a voice dripping with sarcasm, she replies simply, “I have no tale of woe.” In her mind, she doesn’t. Life isn’t pretty, but you endure. Even thorny Rochester has to melt a little at her no-nonsense fortitude.
Of course Jane’s steady view is shaken by ensuing events at Thornfield, where she also meets a chatty housekeeper played by Judi Dench (as if Anglophiles needed another reason to see this film). The script is necessarily truncated from its expansive source material — Bronte wrote a fairly hefty novel — but in Fukunara’s hands you never feel like you’re missing a thing.