Jane Eyre gets around a lot.
I’m referring, of course, to the oft-told story of Jane Eyre. The chaste, highly moral character of Jane Eyre, created by Charlotte Brontë and first published in 1847, doesn’t get around at all; in fact, she yearns to be her own woman. But Jane’s story has legs — at least five film versions of Jane Eyre were released prior to 1930. Since then, dozens more have been created, not to mention an amazing number of musicals, radio shows, mini-series, graphic novels and spin-offs.
Another telling may seem superfluous, but 2011’s Jane Eyre completely retools the narrative. Screenwriter Moira Buffini, armed with her red marker meat cleaver, has trimmed huge chunks of fat (and some meat) from Brontë’s story, removing most of Eyre’s childhood and reimagining the tale in a series of tricky narrative flashbacks. Buffini and director Cary Fukunga ( Sin Nombre ) manage to button the whole 400-page story up into a trim 120 minutes — a feat not unlike stuffing Kirstie Alley into a 19th century whalebone corset.
For the uninitiated, Jane Eyre tells the story of its titular character, played by Mia Wasikowska, whom we last saw playing Alice in Alice in Wonderland . When the story begins, Jane is cold and rain-soaked and in the process of running away, paused at a literal crossroads. What brought her to this point we don’t know. However, we soon bear witness to her abusive childhood, albeit at a fast-forwarded pace.
Her time at Gateshead, her mean aunt’s house, is reduced to a single fight with her cousin before she is shipped off to boarding school. “As for its vacations,” says Jane’s aunt, who has taken to referring to Jane as “it” in front of the school’s evil headmaster, “It must spend them all at Lowood.” Likewise, Jane’s time at Lowood Institution is also significantly abbreviated, and the viewer is left with an impression of a dark, damp, friendless place that has all the comforts of Abu Ghraib, where teachers are armed with birch switches and torture devices like The Pedestal of Infamy.
Upon her release from Lowood, Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield, an estate owned by the mysterious and handsome Edward Rochester, played by Michael Fassbender ( Inglorious Basterds ). Rochester eventually finds Jane’s pretty face and spunky feminist sensibilities irresistible. Likewise, despite his inherent itchiness, Jane is enamored with Rochester’s Wolverine sideburns and wool breeches. Jane befriends head maid Alice Fairfax (Judi Dench) and eventually enchants Rochester, who has a deep, dark secret to go along with his deep, dark estate.
There’s a lot to like in this rebooted version of an old classic. At the top of the list are Wasikowska and Fassbender, who throw themselves headlong into their flawed characters. Aided by the conventions of the day, which often didn’t allow subordinates, particularly women, to speak freely, Wasikowska manages to pull back on the reins, replacing melodrama with subtlety, angst with grace.
Much of Jane Eyre is perfect — its costumes and historical accuracy seem beyond reproach. Its moody musical score, all tremulous stringed instruments, complements its visual compositions, which, when inside, are all muted colors and inky shadows bleeding into one another. Outdoor shots feature barren, drizzly countryside. Visually, the film captures the loneliness and isolation of its main character.
Jane Eyre avoids the stilted period dialog that can hamstring and suck the fun out of these types of films. More importantly, Jane Eyre gives us a new version of memorable, believable characters that can stand on their own and aren’t dependent upon the viewer having read the source material in lit class.
Grade = A-