It's not merely because much of the new version of 'Jane Eyre' is shrouded in shadows, but it seems like film adaptations of classic literary works are a little bit like (of all things) glow sticks: in their original form they already possess all of the materials needed to be interesting, or if you'll pardon the pun, brilliant, but they need to be sort of broken or cracked open in order to unlock the emotion that gives them resonance. Remarkably, in Cary Fukunaga's interpretation of the Charlotte Bronte classic, you can almost see the text exploding with energy as the actors bring it to life -- which is why even audiences disinclined to embrace period pictures or laborious literary adaptations will find themselves enchanted, even perhaps swooning in 'Jane Eyre.'
Mia Wasikowska plays Jane, a curious and fearless orphan who is sent off to a strict religious school to break her of the independence that was deliberately misdiagnosed as insolence by her adoptive mother, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins). Suffering the loss of a friend during the early days of her matriculation, she grows up experiencing nothing but solitude and loss, but endures long enough to procure a job as governess to the French daughter of Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), a handsome but restless landowner. Because of her own febrile intelligence, she soon captures Rochester's attention, and the two find themselves in a furtive but unspoken courtship. But when Rochester simultaneously begins to entertain the attention of a local girl, Miss Ingram (Imogen Poots), Jane is forced to decide whether her continued independence is worth the cost of losing the man she has grown to love.
About halfway through 'Jane Eyre' there's a scene in which Jane is beckoned to Mr. Rochester's side and asked a series of questions about her life -- her background, her experiences and her opinions in general. While the film is certainly sumptuous and deeply-felt up to that point, the conversation between Jane and Rochester crackles with an energy that brings the film to life, and suggests, if only briefly, that the whole production might have been that much stronger if only Fukunaga had elected to excise the rest of the plot and simply chronicle a series of drawing-room conversations between these two exquisitely-drawn characters. Not only do we see the first glimpses of Rochester's thoughtful if sometimes brusque compassion, but we see the grown-up manifestation of Jane's lifelong self-protection. The two find an odd common ground in their mutual contentiousness -- divided by class privilege, or lack thereof, and willful, deliberate politeness -- that feels like a more profound connection than either realize at the time.
Depicting a 19th-century romance with the frivolity of a contemporary hook-up would undermine the source material's repressive but undeniable passion, but Fukunaga, enabled by a terrific script by Moira Buffini ('Tamara Drewe'), makes their disputes seem more like connections, and in the most complimentary way possible creates a perfect equal for the other that transcends shared interests or even the immediacy of physical attraction. For her part, Wasikowska seems remarkably at home in a corset and dowdy governess' dress with her hair finely, modestly styled to suit her poverty-level class status, but she exudes the kind of attractiveness that comes from a person who knows her own self-worth, and refuses to settle for a value less than she deserves. Meanwhile, Fassbender is so effortlessly sexy as Rochester -- born for breeches and a fancy-lad shirt that somehow only further showcases his masculinity -- that the actor's natural intelligence only enhances his attractiveness. He gives the character a palpable connection to the young woman who has captured his fancy, and less because she happens to be genuinely, secretly beautiful underneath her businesslike appearance than the fact that her own irrepressible charm and personality fairly enchanted him.
While it will come as no surprise to fans of the course material, Fukunaga's approach to the text is unique in that it almost treats Bronte's novel as gothic horror, revisiting supernatural possibilities throughout the film and giving its story an elevated, melodramatic tone that only facilitates greater depths once secrets have been revealed and feelings have been exposed. But the director also never loses his firm grasp on the film's central thread, Jane's unrelenting resilience, self-sufficiency, and sense of independence, and that's precisely why her eventual efforts to secure the affections of the man she loves take on much deeper emotional significance. As she says in the film, "I must respect myself," and she has, and her reward for protecting that is a relationship that shows her as much consideration as she shows it.
Because literary adaptations can often be tedious, stuffy affairs that show more fealty to their subject matter than the prospect of entertaining an audience, Fukunaga's film manages to tread the line between fidelity and self-actualization with more success than most. That said, strategically speaking it's almost disappointing that this film was released so early in the year, because it seems likely to have earned greater critical acclaim were it introduced to potential voters in the thick of Oscar season. But if every decade must have its own adaptation of Bronte's novel, then this one will more than suffice, and its emotional weight should endure at least until the next one comes along, if not for years beyond that.
At the risk of further drawing out a tenuous metaphor, the film manages to sustain its glow long after it disappears from theaters, thanks in no small part to Fukunaga's efforts to shake up the source material. Ultimately, this particular 'Jane Eyre' feels like the story of a modern woman who finds love precisely because (rather than in spite) of freeing herself from the shackles of patriarchal values, and the film as a whole succeeds by sharing with its audience that sense of integrity and empowerment. All of which really means is that Fukunaga communicates an authentic sense of tone and time period with his interpretation of Bronte's novel, but also makes it relevant for audiences who think of bodices and betrothals as literary devices rather than inescapable lifestyle choices.