With the great 1944 version of Jane Erye, starring Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine and a perfect supporting cast easily available to buy or rent, it would seem that nobody needs a sixth remake of Charlotte Brontë’s gothic Victorian novel, published in 1847. But filmmakers just can’t resist the camera-ready thrill and romance of the story, so it’s back to the Yorkshire moors, the birdlike stirrings in the unloved heart of the orphaned Jane, the creepy mansion of the brooding Edward Fairfax Rochester, the mystery of the screams in the night and the secret horror locked away in the attic, and the rest of the familiar territory already worn thin by the heavy feet of not only Welles but Colin Clive, George C. Scott and William Hurt. This one is workmanlike and nothing remarkable, but compared to the rest of the junk polluting screens today, it is an elegant and welcome antidote.
It was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose only previous feature is Sin Nombre; it was written by fledgling newcomer Moira Buffini, whose only major credit is Stephen Frears’ dreary comedic flop Tamara Drewe; and it stars, in the title role, the young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who made her American film debut as the daughter in last year’s The Kids Are All Right. None of them has the kind of experience to tackle material with the scope of Jane Eyre, and unfortunately it shows. The extravagant, polished and highly superior 1944 film, directed by Robert Stevenson and written by Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, showed a dark, malignant side of Brontë, while the new one aims more for pathos and passion. The highlights of the lengthy novel still outline the story of an abused orphan, cheated out of her inheritance and subjected to the snobbish indifference of a vicious aunt (Sally Hawkins) who ships her off to a grim and imposing institution called Lowood, a miserable prison of cruelty run by a heartless monster named Brocklehurst. But the details of Jane’s tortured childhood are too sketchy here to have the same moving impact as the earlier films. The Dickensian fate that awaited the children at Lowood is barely mentioned, and Brocklehurst, the sadistic schoolmaster so memorably played in 1944 by the terrifying Henry Daniell, is all but absent. Worst of all, I miss the children–Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane, and the overwhelmingly appealing moppet Elizabeth Taylor as her fatally ill friend Helen–whose life-altering friendship is not remotely explored here. I especially miss the enchanting Margaret O’Brien as Rochester’s lonely French ward, Adele. The early part of the story is brushed over like a bad vacation. The screenplay is recklessly devoid of details-how old everyone is, where they came from, how they feel about their fates. Gratefully, a group of fine performances take up the slack.
As the missionary who rescues Jane from near death on the moors, Jamie Bell is such a virile young screen presence that it’s hard to remember him as the boy who played Billy Elliot. Jane eventually finds a position as companion and governess to little Adele at the imposing Thornfield Hall, and an immediate attraction to Rochester, the estate’s thorny, glowering master. Her virginal innocence and blunt austerity do not convincingly mix with his manic-depressive unhappiness as their ardent affection intensifies. As the brooding, toxic Rochester, the Irish actor Michael Fassbender is a sexy improvement over the mumbling Orson Welles. He’s less ferocious and speaks clearly, and he plays Rochester as a sort of second cousin to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, with primal lust lingering just beneath his hands-planted-firmly-in-the-lapels demeanor. His is a performance of studied arrogance masking a restless, romantic libido–a sealed-off Svengali waiting for his Trilby. Ms. Wasikowska’s Jane is so modest and subdued that when she arrives at Thornwood Hall, she turns into a bloodless wimp who falls too easily under the spell of her master. Then, when her anxiety and awe turn to love, it’s not entirely persuasive. Leave it the great Judi Dench, as the warm, compassionate housekeeper, to bring levity and reason to the proceedings and raise Jane Eyre above the level of Masterpiece Theater.
The dialogue is often so arch and formal it needs translating (“Stay your wandering at a friend’s threshold” means “Come in”), the direction heavy-handed and improvidently corny. Still, it’s grimly fascinating in ways that won’t lull you to sleep. You gotta hand it to Charlotte Brontë. One hundred and sixty-four years since she gave hyperkinetic Victorian schoolgirls their first sleepless nights, she’s pulling them in all over again. What’s next? An all-male version with Charles Busch and Cheyenne Jackson?
Running time 121 minutes
Written by Moira Buffini
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins, Judi Dench