You would not be wrong to wonder if it’s even possible to get excited for a new movie version of “Jane Eyre” anymore. True, 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 sooty, bonneted world of Brontë. But maybe it’s not such a stretch. After all, this is a guy who knows from big-screen brooding. Among the many delights of Fukunaga’s new movie is your freedom to disregard how it compares with all previous “Eyre”s. Instead, consider how improbably well “Sin Nombre” has set it up: In that film, a headstrong teenaged displaced illegal immigrant falls for a brooding gangster with a dark past; in this one, a headstrong teenaged displaced-orphan governess falls for a brooding lord with a dark past. From chugging freight trains to huffing horses, from weatherbeaten railyards to windswept moors, from 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, and perhaps also just a tad temperamental. 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. (The script was intelligently adapted by Moira Buffini, most recently the intelligent adapter of “Tamara Drewe.”) 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: She’s been played by the likes of Joan Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Samantha Morton; he by the likes of Orson Welles, William Hurt and Timothy Dalton. What matters most is the rapport between them, and with Wasikowska and Fassbender in the roles, it’s electric.
For any pair of actors, this duo is a strange inheritance. Taking “Jane Eyre” into account along with “Fish Tank” before it, Fassbender might be seen as settling into that peculiar niche, formerly occupied by Jeremy Irons, of the slender suave Englishman who seems always to be having on-screen affairs with teenaged girls. Well, power to him. He sure is good at it. 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, like, “I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man,” and, perhaps more importantly, “I must respect myself.” Having abided Tim Burton’s ultimately shrug-worthy “Alice in Wonderland,” Wasikowska finally has the classic reboot that she deserves.
The supporting cast includes strategic applications of Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins and not least Simon McBurney, a familiar English character actor who in this case has a paradoxically generous way of overacting just enough to set the mood and bring the other performers’ subtleties into sharper relief.
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 for a while, at least until the next one. And if that doesn’t strike you as exciting, isn’t it at least sort of comforting to think that every generation gets a new cinematic way to cheat on its English homework?