*Jane Eyre (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
You wouldn't be out of line to wonder if it's even possible to get excited for a new movie version of Jane Eyre anymore. Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel has been adapted into some form of motion picture at least once every decade since 1914.
But only now has it been done by a young director whose previous film concerned train-hopping Hondurans sneaking into America and the Mexican gangsters making an already miserable life even harder for them. So there's that.
For a moment, it was anybody's guess where filmmaker Cary Fukunaga would go after Sin Nombre, his affecting, award-winning 2009 feature debut. Probably nobody would have guessed he'd go headlong into the bonneted world of Brontë. But consider how improbably well Sin Nombre has set it up: In that film, a headstrong, displaced teenaged illegal immigrant falls for a brooding gangster with a dark past; in this one, a headstrong, displaced teenaged orphan governess falls for a brooding lord with a dark past.
From chugging freight trains to huffing horses; weatherbeaten railyards to windswept moors; a goth atmosphere of skeevy gang-initiation rituals to a gothic atmosphere of stuffy English manners. Maybe it really is all just variations on a single archetype. Who knew?
The most important thing to understand about Jane Eyre is that she's quite self-possessed, given the rotten childhood she's endured and the arduous journey that's led her to live and work at the gloomy estate of one Edward Rochester. This fellow, too, might be called self-possessed. As he and Jane talk to each other, most of the time in beautifully lofty language, they find themselves engaged in a mutually invigorating battle of wills.
A romance between them should therefore seem inevitable, but also unlikely; in addition to the differences of age and social status, there is also that one rather important something that he's not telling her. Hint: Is that a voice in her head, or in the attic? And which, exactly, would be worse?
That Jane, said to be plain, and Rochester, said (by Jane) to be ugly, are portrayed respectively by the un-plain Mia Wasikowska and the un-ugly Michael Fassbender shouldn't impugn Fukunaga's fidelity to the book. You can just take it for granted that these two characters have a long movie history of interesting but technically inaccurate casting. What matters most is the rapport between them, and with Wasikowska and Fassbender in the roles, it's electric.
Considering his role in Fish Tank, Fassbender might be settling into that peculiar niche, formerly occupied by Jeremy Irons, of the slender suave Englishman always having on-screen affairs with teenaged girls. Wasikowska for her part is as steady and alert as ever, delivering exactly the right blend of wisdom and vulnerability in Jane's most resonant lines. Having abided Tim Burton's ultimately shrug-worthy Alice in Wonderland, she finally has the classic reboot that she deserves.
The supporting cast includes strategic applications of Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins and Simon McBurney. Fukunaga also benefits from his reunion with Sin Nombre cinematographer Adriano Goldman, who again shows a keen eye for the inherent expressionism of natural light, another means by which an old story comes newly to life. By being greater than the sum of its parts, this Jane Eyre should stay fresh — at least until the next one.