The latest film incarnation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre seeks to evade the misguided literalness of most classic-fiction adaptations by opening in medias res, with distraught 19-year-old Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing an imposing stone castle in the wake of her life’s most harrowing discovery. A diminished figure seen dashing across the Derbyshire moorlands in an elevated God’s-eye shot, pausing for a despairing sobbing fit and pelted with windswept torrents before her rescue by a bland young clergyman (Jamie Bell) and his sisters, Jane is thus introduced by scenarist Moira Buffini and director Cary Joji Fukunaga as a blank slate of suffering against her rocky, spectacular surroundings. Then the narrative moves backward to the neglectful rearing of preadolescent orphan Jane (Amelia Clarkson) by hateful relatives, and her fateful hiring as governess at the Thornfield estate by the “abrupt and changeful” aristocrat Edward Rochester (smoldering Michael Fassbender), whose terrible secret ultimately sets in motion the girl’s panicked exodus.
If this Jane Eyre, in the wake of at least 20 earlier movie versions, doesn’t fully sustain this spirit of reinventing the Brontë story (it can’t match the boldness with which Jane Campion recalibrated The Portrait of a Lady for the 1990s), there are sufficient rewards to engage a viewer who hasn’t encountered this quintessential Victorian, death-steeped romance since sophomore English, principally the two leads and their duet of Byronic morbidity and virginal fluster. Wasikowska, mildly frowning and moving with unflappable, porcelain delicacy through her early scenes of educating Rochester’s French ward, physicalizes the trauma and repression absorbed by Jane in her hard-knock youth (melodramatically pocked with beatings and her embrace of a dying innocent in her boarding-school bed); when the master of the house finally melts her reserve, she giggles as if for the first time. Fassbender proves himself up to imbuing his Rochester with enough pathos and needful passion to carry his plausibility past the difficult revelation of the noisy phantom in Thornfield’s attic (Orson Welles, in his 1943 Hollywood performance of the role, seemed more like Hamlet-turned-gothic madman).
In his second feature, Fukunaga, working in a contrasting milieu after his indie immigration drama Sin Nombre, is defeated by a few traps of dramatizing a sprawling novel in two hours rather than with miniseries languor. Judi Dench, as Thornfield’s goodhearted chief maid, seems useful mostly for doling out exposition and pressing her lips together in dutiful silence; similarly, Sally Hawkins barely gets time to bring two dimensions to Jane’s deceitful, bitter aunt. And the plot’s problematic pivot point, always on the edge of ludicrous when raised off the page, seems staged with a soft-pedaled reluctance. But this handsome Jane Eyre breathes most when its lord’s bravado (“What is your tale of woe?” Rochester queries with a hollow snarl) and its heroine’s longing to exercise “the agency of a man” are transformed by Wasikowska and Fassbender into a meditation on allowing love to overcome shame.