By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
To Eyre is human, to forgive divine.
With apologies to Alexander Pope, there’s no need to forgive this version of Jane Eyre — the latest among many, perhaps two dozen, down through the years for screens big and small — because it honors the source material without being slavishly reverent and makes the material seem freshly observed.
The classic Gothic novel by Charlotte Bronte, published in 1847, is a period romance that has surfaced to speak to audiences in many different periods, about a romance between two characters haunted by their respectively troubled pasts.
Mia Wasikowska plays the titular protagonist, a poor, plain-speaking, and observant young woman, plain in appearance, who struggles to become independent against all odds after surviving a dreadfully bleak childhood, then getting work as a governess for the young French ward of the master of Thorfield Hall, a remote estate in the north of England.
There she goes about her business against the background of a harsh rural landscape that mirrors her isolation and modest level of expectation, then finally meets her wealthy employer, Edward Rochester, a moody and troubled, brusquely sensitive aristocrat, played with unforced charisma by Michael Fassbender.
“What is your tale of woe?” he asks her. She says she doesn’t have one.
Oh, but yes she does. As does he.
Jane continues to look for elusive kindness and respect. He doesn’t appear to be handing out much of either when they first meet.
But if she’s intimidated by him in the beginning, she doesn’t show it. And as they spend more time together, the differences between them melt away and she falls for him.
And the feelings would appear to be mutual: he surely admires her spunk and there is an undeniable form of intimacy between them. Whatever they are allowed to say or do or show or know, they do love each other.
For the first time, the determined but pessimistic Jane seems happy. Her relationship with the brooding Rochester, which has evolved from a curious friendship between kindred spirits who suffer for different reasons into a preoccupying romance between potential soulmates, appears headed towards the altar.
But society’s rules are about to assert themselves. She is about to learn, willy-nilly, that he harbors a damaging secret about something so overwhelmingly shameful in the era being depicted, that it’s certain to scotch their union. And although it wouldn’t be seen the same way in contemporary society, we don’t have trouble thinking of equivalent revelations that would.
Director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) is fortunate in having two principals whose work thus far is at the very least striking. Wasikowska has excelled in Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right, and TV’s “In Treatment.” Fassbender has done the same in Fish Tank, Hunger, and Inglourious Basterds. And the relatively inexperienced director also has the benefit of a skilled supporting cast that includes Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, and Sally Hawkins.
Pity, then, that although each of the two leads makes a vivid and technically proficient impression, and we definitely see Rochester’s appreciation of Jane’s admirable qualities, the romantic chemistry between them isn’t just a tad stronger, a bit more urgent.
The screenplay by Moira Buffini — which, unlike the chronological novel, starts in the middle of Jane’s life and catches us up with streamlined flashbacks — rearranges the material to a certain degree, but in an interpretation that captures the spirit of the novel as intended, addressing the ways in which the past intrudes on the present and alters the future.
So we’ll adapt 3 stars out of 4. Whether or not we “need” another version of Jane Eyre, today’s audiences now have access to a fresh-off-the-vine, thoroughly respectable, and remarkably restrained rendering of the Victorian classic.