Fukunaga's 'Jane Eyre' is Reverent, Cautiously Emotional

Directed by: Cary Fukunaga, Runtime: 120 minutes
Grade: A-

Mia Wasikowska captivates the very moment she arrives in Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë's long-celebrated character study folded within a tale of gothic romance. Draped in dark teal mid-1800s garb as tears stream down her embattled face, lamenting under a dark-orange sky and, eventually, torrential rainfall, it's clear we're witnessing a far cry from the wooden Alice from Burton's cockamamie adventure into Wonderland. There's a wealth of complexity that propels the character to this point, as we'll soon discover (and as long-standing readers of the novel know), which focuses on a woman granted intellect and determination over beauty and poise. Fukunaga's vision grasps Jane's involvedness as a complex sheltered female character while cautiously smoldering where other adaptations might overextend, punctuated by Wasikowska's meekly spirited presence.

Penned by Moira Buffini and considered one of the better unproduced British screenplays a few years prior to filming, the tightly-adapted and often reverent script operates on flashbacks -- a smart and effective way of condensing the book's segments -- through Jane's schooling, her time as educator and governess of Thornfield Hall, and her life afterwards as a meager cottage-girl schoolteacher. She endures physical and mental turmoil in her younger years as an orphaned cast-off, yet she expounds on that and becomes a sharp, strong woman who finds a place at wealthy governor Mr. Rochester's home as the educator of his young ward, Adele, likely his legitimate daughter. While the core of Jane Eyre pivots on their blossoming relationship, pairing Mr. Rochester's brusque manner against her secluded yet impassioned carriage, it also focuses on how she defends her integrity and wrestles with the demons of her past. And others'.

Brontë's novel has seen countless adaptations since its 1847 publication, from the snappy '40s Welles-Fontaine film to a handful of fine '70s-'80s BBC miniseries, so achieving a fresh "classic" perspective proves to be a tricky endeavor. Fukunaga, whose previous film Sin Nombre was one of 2009's finest, achieves originality by enhancing the nuance of Jane's individualism and the gothic tone that submerges the story' mildly sinister underbelly, crafting a somber yet sprightly depiction of a Victorian woman whose past troubles serve as internal tools and shackles. There's gravity behind how Jane holsters -- even masks -- her sheltered fervor and discomfiture, which turns a contemporary viewpoint towards her strong personality; in that, Jane Eyre builds momentum with fraught emotional suspense as well, from the crane lashes and shunning in her harsh school environment to the sharp-tongued subordination in the company of her intentionally curt lord.

With Sin Nombre's Adriano Goldman behind the lens, Fukunaga dresses the 19th Century period with lush but sensible detail, a transfixing atmosphere where the clothing and locations operate at the same volume as the film's frequently eerie temper. This isn't meant to be a showcase of ritzy frocks and sumptuous photography within the isolation of Thornfield Hall and elsewhere in the dampened moors of England, even if the occasional aristocratic garment and expansive vista (or fork in the road) does catch the eye. The windswept nature of Jane Eyre's artistic fabric instead emphasizes quaintness and claustrophobic gloom, where flickering candles and cool natural light elevate the stirring mood within the governess' plain frame, perceptive and restrained in terms of the broad, brooding romance that eventually arises. Alongside Dario Marianelli's haunting score, the film's outer beauty resides in its projection of the story's inner turmoil, and it vividly does so.

Buffini's script shears the judiciously-spread Jane Eyre down to its evocative foundation -- Jane's time at Thornfield Hall -- while clutching onto the elements that shape her from her youth as periphery devices, condensing the lengthy source material into a spry yet sober telling of ominous romance. Brevity does work against Fukunaga, as it's tough to fit Jane's maturation and the complex romance built between her and Mr. Rochester within a standard-length motion picture. But the unique chemistry between Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender achieves a disarming rapport that accentuates their individual introspections, and the way they uncomfortably mesh into aristocratic and gender power-struggling. Wasikowska shines as the plain but alluring Jane, articulated by her tense eyes and mousy, volume-speaking composure, while Fassbender's snarling edge crafts a deft blend of cynical distress and allure.

Some could argue that Jane Eyre lacks vigor or even passion between the leads, and that's a valid argument in its own right, but Fukunaga's restraint over the melodramatic overtones also opens up the introspective corners of the prudent governess and her Byronic lord. That way, when the floodgates of their self-possessed chemistry eventually burst open on an abnormal sunny English afternoon, the austere back-and-forth that ensues properly exposes their open wounds as individuals, both Jane's yearning for liberty and moral clarity and the shadows of the skeletons in Mr. Rochester's closet. You get a sound sense of the Jane Eyre that's sprawled across her past, present, and future, a defiant woman who yearns for some semblance of impartiality, and in this moody retelling of the oft-told yarn, it's her steadfast choices and weathered, resolute demeanor that underscore Brontë's overwrought closet-opening.

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