Susan Granger’s review of “Jane Eyre” (Focus Features)
Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel has often been called the archetypal Victorian romance, so you have to give 33 year-old director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) credit for breathing new life into a story that’s already been filmed at least 18 times, dating back to a 1910 silent movie, and nine made-for-television versions.
In the opening scene, hysterically sobbing 19 year-old Jane (Mia Wasikowska, familiar from “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Kids Are All Right”) flees from a striking stone mansion, dashes across the Derbyshire moors, drenched by windswept rain, and collapses in the doorway of a pious young clergyman, St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. Eventually, in extensive flashbacks, Jane’s backstory is revealed. Orphaned as a child and subsequently banished from Gateshead, her childhood home, by a bitter, hateful aunt (Sally Hawkins), she was shipped off to Lowood, a strict boarding school for poverty-stricken girls, where she was befriended by Helen Burns (Freya Parks), who falls ill and dies. That painful loss strengthens Jane’s character, giving her courage, and, eventually, she seeks work as a governess to the ward of mysteriously reclusive Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), settling in to live at Thornfield Hall, his imposing, isolated estate, overseen by a kindly, understanding housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench).
The reason why so many classic stories are often re-visited is that they seem relevant to successive generations. What gives them this importance is the human dilemma at the core of the tale. Screenwriter Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe”) emphasizes the Gothic darkness, desolation and danger lurking behind Thornfield Hall’s stark austerity, yet the emotional involvement – passion – that’s so necessary for effective melodrama seems to be lacking in this modernist interpretation which doesn’t have a formidable leading man.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Jane Eyre” is an admirable 6, but sadly lacks the tension and excitement of previous incarnations. Consider the 1944 movie, directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles with Agnes Moorehead as the dreadful aunt and a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane’s friend.