Cary Fukunaga's feverishly soulful remake of the multiply remade Jane Eyre rises to most challenges -- not the least of which is making Mia Wasikowska, a golden child of current cinema, look homely.
In Alice in Wonderland, the somewhat vaporous young Australian seemed content to coast on her ethereal beauty while falling down holes on demand. She picked up a bit of steam as the college-bound daughter in The Kids Are All Right. But as the orphaned and abused waif who falls in love across the cavernous British class divide and has made Charlotte Bronte's novel a two-century best-seller, Wasikowska comes of age, morphing from plain Jane to steely Jane to radiant lover, rushing across Yorkshire to reclaim her broken boss.
The folks in hair and makeup rounded out Wasikowska's lovely Slavic bone structure and pulled her cascading tresses into the dun-colored bun that traditionally bespeaks British governess. Jane's mouth is tight with the endurance that got her through a rotten childhood with Aunt Reed (Sally Hawkins, seizing the day to play bad egg for once) and years of cruelty at the dread Lowood school. With a heroine this mousy, you see why a madwoman in the attic is a must.
Yet from her arrival at Thornfield to tutor Rochester's spoiled brat (Romy Settbon Moore), Wasikowska subtly lights Jane from within. Her eyes shine with the intelligent curiosity of the marginalized observer, and there's an enticing dominatrix flicker ("I'm not afraid; I've simply no wish to talk nonsense") to her banter with her intrigued employer.
Every woman who grew up reading Jane Eyre has built a tailor-made Rochester in her head. Mine's a weird amalgam of the Incredible Hulk and Orson Welles' saturnine turn opposite Joan Fontaine in Robert Stevenson's 1944 film version -- a raging, wounded brute sulking from the depths of his easy chair.
So it took me a while to warm up to Michael Fassbender, the versatile pretty boy who played a British army officer in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, a charming molester in Fish Tank and a starved IRA martyr in the small indie film Hunger. Fassbender is delicately built, but he has knowing bedroom eyes that could make a woman of any age buckle at the knees. And he's made Rochester his own with a dry wit and a simmering resentment that mischievously reinterprets this damaged blueblood as a thinking woman's bit of crumpet, a man who has his dark secrets, but who's willing to let a woman with spark and brain rock his world.
Not that you'll hear anything about worlds being rocked in this elegantly classical movie, one of whose delights is its blithe disinterest in waving at the teen demographic. Shooting in a broody pewter light that segues into sunlight and shuttlecocks when love blooms, Fukunaga opts for a lyrical naturalism -- his Rochester woos Jane in a passably authentic Yorkshire brogue ("You moost accept me as your 'oosband") -- that he ramps up into swooning Gothic melodrama as Rochester's past gears up to drive a truck through the couple's newfound bliss. Calm, composed Jane falls sobbing into the rain-sodden moors. Things go bump in the night. The storied sadism of the British boarding school is viscerally exploited in flashback. There is copious fainting, and weatherwise, much donnern und blitzen to accompany the starter wife's obligatory pyromania. Fun!
Fukunaga, who made the well-received 2009 thriller Sin Nombre, has a canny grasp of the fact that as pioneers of chick-lit go, the Bronte sisters were Goth girls to the core. Motherless and isolated in one of England's bleakest landscapes, Charlotte and Emily Bronte worked the key tropes of the early romance novel for all they were worth. Personally, I've always preferred Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, so shamelessly over the top that it sat up and begged for the hilarious parody it got in the Monty Python semaphore version. But it's straight-talking Jane, the smart virgin sassing her granite-jawed employer while secretly aching to be deflowered by him, who has outlasted that bipolar drama queen, Catherine Earnshaw. Catherine may be a diva, but Jane is us.
Or at least the boomer us, we who grew up on pent-up desire and sublimation. How the hitherto durable brand -- Fukunaga's is the 18th adaptation of the tale, and that's not counting nine teleplays -- will play to a generation of girls for whom sexual repression is a foreign country remains an open question. Halfway through this thrillingly allusive drama, free of naked bodies heaving in tangled sheets, I turned to the 13-year-old I had dragged to the screening and found her slumbering peacefully at my side. Over to you, Diablo Cody.