Jane Eyre is sure to send the nation's few remaining English lit majors (hello out there!) and devotees of coffee-table films in general into paroxysms of joy. As everyone knows, Charlotte Brontë's novel is not only arguably the mother of all romantic bodice-rippers and a prime fountainhead of Chick Lit, but also one the most-filmed properties in existence.
Depending on whom you believe, Ms. Brontë's 1847 tale of our long-suffering, headstrong heroine's love patiently waiting to be consummated has been the subject of a near-record number of screen adaptations — IMDB lists some 22 movie and TV versions. It's positively unavoidable. People who have studiously resisted reading the book nevertheless have a favorite Jane Eyre movie.
The 1943 Joan Fontaine/20th Century Fox version from Hollywood, with Orson Welles as a brooding (what else?) Rochester and Agnes Moorehead as the cruel Mrs. Reed, is probably one of the best known, but they come in all shapes and sizes, as long as the shape is Gothic and the size can contain a swelling bosom. Second City Television's scrumptious parody, Jane Eyrehead, may have turned the novel into a lowbrow tribute to 1950s TV — pitting Andrea Martin as Jane against a caterwauling Rochester played by Joe Flaherty as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson from the Jack Benny Show — but even that slapstick spinoff wouldn't dare neglect the misty moors and somber wardrobe.
Neither would Cary Joji Fukunaga. The director of the striking 2009 illegal-immigrant drama Sin Nombre enshrines Brontë's story in a scrupulously maintained 19th-century setting, with carefully modulated performances by Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in the lead roles and a distinct lack of tinkering with the franchise.
Ms. Wasikowska is a pleasant surprise as Jane. The 21-year-old Australian actor seems to have aged ten years since her ingénue starring role in Alice in Wonderland — released just last year. Her pale European features and mild manner were well suited for that fanciful part as well as her turn as a Belarus resistance maiden in 2008's Defiance. But it was in The Kids Are All Right, a household sitcom devoid of costumed camouflage, that she had a chance to show off her dramatic nimbleness. Filmmaker Fukunaga, who took care to establish fully dimensional female protagonists in Sin Nombre, and screenplay adaptor Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) imagine Jane Eyre as a willful, intelligent, discreetly calculating young woman who is aware that she must play the cards that she's been dealt very carefully, and cry about her misfortune later.
The perils of a penniless, orphaned, adolescent, middle-class girl in the English Midlands during the Industrial Revolution are numerous. Fukunaga sketches in the indignities Jane faces in the house of her aunt, the spiteful Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), and in the dreary Lowood School for disadvantaged girls, with the same attention to detail he used to describe the Mexican gangster life in Sin Nombre. The class antagonism is unmistakable. When you're poor, people can mistreat you with impunity and you have to endure it. But Jane takes matters into her own hands, more or less.
Fassbender handles Rochester in the approved fashion, as a humorless, careworn yet vulnerable man with a guilty secret and a secret room. The rest of the supporting cast rises to the Victorian occasion with gusto: Judi Dench as kindly Mrs. Fairfax, Jamie Bell as St. John Rivers the accommodating missionary, Freya Parks as Jane's doomed friend Helen, squirrelly Simon McBurney as Mr. Brocklehurst, Imogen Poots as bubbly Blanche Ingram, and Valentina Cervi as mad Bertha Mason. The old dark house, Thornfield Hall, is of course a character unto itself.
These are well-trained actors performing a classic of English literature, and they could do it in their sleep — which doesn't mean we should nod off while watching them. Fukunaga's Jane Eyre has a slight touch of the embalmed about it, despite Wasikowska's intense role-playing (with her red hair, she reminds us of Isabelle Huppert's costumed frolics) and the able scene-setting.
Forthright Jane demands passion and will settle for nothing less. The banked fire behind Wasikowska's eyes somehow doesn't blaze with frustrated desire — it's up to us to read into her gaze all the emotion she suppresses — and yet it's perfectly in character for a young woman on a serious mission. In the meantime, 33-year-old Fukunaga, a native of Oakland, performs his own mission: a quantum leap from tense, topical actioners to sedate prestige productions.