This latest in a long, long line of movies based on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of the better ones—and in some ways it may be the best of the lot. A case can certainly be made for that, especially in the casting of Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). She’s probably the closest the movies have ever come to capturing the character, particularly as concerns the age of the character. Whatever may be said of the 1944 version—generally considered the best previous take on the novel—Joan Fontaine’s Jane seems too old and too sophisticated for the role. However, the problem with the film for many may simply lie in the (over)familiarity of the story. This is somewhat borne out by the fact that I found the film very good, but traversing ground I knew well, while my viewing companion, who was unfamiliar with the story in any form, found it more compelling.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Cary Fukunaga’s (Sin Nombre) film—apart from its undeniably finely wrought atmosphere—lies in its structure. The film opens in full-blown gothic mode with Jane fleeing Thornfield Hall in the middle of the night across the moors (how intrinsically gothic can you get?). From here, it follows her being taken in by St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. Only after she has been established as the teacher at a charity school does the narrative turn to Jane’s early life, her background (which can only be called Dickensian) and the events that brought her to that mad flight over the moors. The change in structure is a good one (although it may be little more than inspired by the prologue of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights) in that it immediately plunges the viewer into the drama of Jane’s life, and creates a mystery about it (assuming you don’t know the story).
The center of the story, of course, is Jane going to Thornfield Hall and her experiences in the creepy old place—and, of course, her peculiar romance with the generally distant and considerably older master of the manor, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), whom she first meets by accident on the road—an event that frightens his horse and causes him to be thrown from the animal. (Is this the 1847 version of “meeting cute?”) Assuming you’re familiar with the story, nothing very surprising is going to happen here, though it’s impossible not to admire the craftsmanship, the acting (the leads and Judi Dench are very effective), and the general romantic appeal of the story. All this is good and—if you aren’t familiar with the story—the mystery of Thornfield’s dark secret is well developed, But this brings up another point—one that you may want to skip in the next paragraph if you don’t know know the story.
The build-up to the dark secret is splendidly done, but the secret itself is another matter. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with Bronte’s concept of the insane wife (Valentina Cervi, Miracle at St. Anna) locked away out of sight in the recesses of the old dark house. And it’s been played up nicely, especially when we see the wounds she’s inflicted on her visiting brother (Brit TV actor Harry Lloyd). Then when we actually see her for ourselves—well, she’s simply not particularly menacing or memorable. This is the one area where the film truly misses the boat, especially in terms of gothic horror, and that’s particularly strange in a movie so imbued with that atmosphere.
Don’t misunderstand: This is a good, solid, worthy version of the story, but in one key respect it falls short of its potential. Even if you don’t know the story, I can’t imagine this one thing not being a bit anti-climactic. Regardless, it’s certainly a movie that’s worth a look. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content.