Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre. Image courtesy Focus Features.
In Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester has "broad and jetty eyebrows" and a "grim mouth, chin, and jaw—yes, all three were very grim, and make no mistake." He's "broad chested and thin flanked; though neither tall nor graceful," and Jane allows that "most people would have thought him an ugly man." When the smolderingly handsome Michael Fassbender made his first appearance as Rochester in Cary Fukunaga's new film adaptation of the novel, though, my friend Sarah Heuer turned to me and exclaimed, "Hottie!"
As Jane Eyre ("I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked"), Mia Wasikowska is quite easy on the eyes as well. In fact, this film is so good-looking that, as embodied by Valentina Cervi, even the madwoman in the attic is a wild beauty that you'd totally be DTF if you met her at a rave.
Really, though, this movie isn't about the people: it's about the indirect lighting. From the first frame to the last, Fukunaga gives us rapturous light peeking from behind curtains, raining through tree branches, and glowing up from tabletops. Adriano Goldman's cinematography does to natural light what a Miracle Bra does to natural boobs, paradoxically magifying by means of constraint.
The world lit by this light is the timeless fantasy universe of English literature, where the women swoon, the men brood, and the children are constantly told they're below average. In the opening scene, Wasikowska runs across windswept heaths, down dark dirt roads, and past ominous castles without another soul in sight, though the scene is so familiar that you imagine film crews lined up on the edge of the heath releasing corseted heroines one at a time, like clay pigeons.
What's she running from? We learn in flashback the details that are familiar to most people who took high school English: the orphan childhood, the cruel schoolmaster, the problematic romance with the enigmatic Rochester. Although Moira Buffini's screenplay is not particularly talky, this adaptation somehow manages to tell rather than show, sketching Jane's progress with signpost vignettes that get the plot across without giving the characters the chance to open up as human beings.
Jane Eyre is a difficult novel to adapt, Sarah pointed out, because so much of the meat of the book is in Jane's internal monologues. Buffini and Fukunaga don't even really try to get into Jane's head: we just watch her suffer silently, and are left to assume that there's something going on in there on the basis of the rare but almost alarmingly eloquent exchanges that she has with other characters. Sometimes adaptations of great literature sound precisely like Adaptations of Great Literature, and this is that kind of movie.
This adaptation also strips the complexity out of the central relationship. Rochester is so much infinitely more simpatico with Jane than any other character is—and he's just so damn sexy—that there's never any doubt that the two are meant to be together. (Rochester is allowed one illustrative rage, which consists of him slamming a couple of distant doors and standing on his castle patio shooting across the yard at something unseen. Squirrels?) There are, of course, plot circumstances that impede the characters' romance, but the conflict those circumstances create is a straightforward melodrama: Jane and Rochester want to hook up, but society frustratingly says they can't. Arranged marriages can really harsh your mellow.
There's a moment—and by "moment," I mean exactly one tense close-up shot—where it seems that the film is about to make a left turn and become an eerie psychological thriller, but the shot quickly ends and we're back to Masterpiece Theatre.
For many, this film will be a very satisfying experience. It's beautifully filmed, and the cast (including Judi Dench as a housekeeper) contribute well-measured performances that effectively convey the screenplay's gentle wit. Fassbender and Wasikowska have genuine chemistry together, and Wasikowska is radiant when her character finally opens up and allows herself to taste joy. (If you know what I mean.) Anglophiles of the Firthocentric variety—you know who you are—will luxuriate in this film like a hot soak in the tub. The rest of you, though, may want to bring some bathtub reading.