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Jane Eyre

From acclaimed director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre)

Jane Eyre may lack fortune and good looks — she is famously “small and plain” as well as “poor and obscure” — but as the heroine of a novel, she has everything. From the very first pages of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 book, Jane embodies virtues that might be off-putting if they were not so persuasive, and if her story were not such a marvelous welter of grim suffering and smoldering passion. She is brave, humble, spirited and honest, the kind of person readers fall in love with and believe themselves to be in their innermost hearts, where literary sympathy lies. Much as Jane combines what would seem to be incompatible traits within a single voice and body — her employer and soul mate, Edward Rochester, is an even wilder brew of contradictions — so does Brontë’s Jane Eyre mash up genres and effects with mesmerizing virtuosity. The novel’s blend of Christian piety, Gothic horror, barely suppressed eroticism and high-toned comedy satisfied readerly appetites in the Victorian era and ever after. It is hardly surprising that this book has inspired so many film adaptations over the last hundred years, the latest of which stars Mia Wasikowska as Jane, the beleaguered governess. Reader, I liked it. This Jane Eyre, energetically directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) from a smart, trim script by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe), is a splendid example of how to tackle the daunting duty of turning a beloved work of classic literature into a movie. Neither a radical updating nor a stiff exercise in middlebrow cultural respectability, Mr. Fukunaga’s film tells its venerable tale with lively vigor and an astute sense of emotional detail. The director does not exactly make the task look easy, but the wild and misty moors, thanks to the painterly eye of the cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, certainly look beautiful, and Dario Marianelli’s music strikes all the right chords of dread, tenderness and longing. Brontë’s themes and moods — the modulations of terror and wit, the matter-of-fact recitation of events giving way to feverish breathlessness — are carefully preserved, though her narrative has been somewhat scrambled. The opening scene shows Jane in desperate flight from Thornfield Hall, dashing across the stormy landscape as if pursued by demons and menaced by a ghostly, wind-borne voice. She is taken in and nursed back to health by a young clergyman, St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), and his two sisters (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant); then her earlier life unfolds in a series of flashbacks that compress many pages into a few potent scenes and images. Despised by the aunt in whose care she has landed and abused by her cousins and the servants, Jane (played as a child by Amelia Clarkson) nonetheless manages to cultivate her innate decency and bolster it with self-reliance. And the movie audience, like the 19th-century novel-reading public, can relish, with only slight queasiness, the sadomasochistic spectacle of boarding school cruelty. There is something voluptuous in the rage inspired by the kind of meanness we are used to calling Dickensian. The oppressors are so awful, the oppressed so innocent, that the desire to see justice done becomes an almost physical hunger. And as in Dickens, the brutality and dogmatic moral arrogance of Jane’s righteous oppressors at the Lowood school have a political dimension, one compounded by Brontë’s clearsighted feminism. Ms. Buffini’s script, while it trims and winnows some of Brontë’s empurpled passages, preserves important elements of the author’s language, including, above all, Jane’s repeated invocations of freedom as an ethical and personal ideal. Freedom in Jane Eyre is a complicated theme in its own right — on the Internet you can buy several term papers that explore it — and also a word whose value and meaning change over time. For the Jane in this movie, it means the ability to act without external constraint and to think without fear or hypocrisy. Ms. Wasikowska, a lovely 21-year-old actress who fulfills the imperative of plainness with a tight-lipped frown, a creased brow and severely parted hair, is a perfect Jane for this film and its moment. She has already tackled another notable 19th-century literary heroine — Alice in Tim Burton’s weird renovation of Alice in Wonderland — and, perhaps more to the point, exemplified the everyday heroism of a young woman of independent temperament in The Kids Are All Right. Her Jane withstands strong crosswinds of feeling and the buffeting of unfair circumstances without self-pity, but also without saintly selflessness. Her world is populated with faultlessly pursued Victorian types, including Mr. Bell’s kind minister and Judi Dench’s talkative housekeeper, who peppers Jane with misleading gossip and questionable advice. Sally Hawkins as the nasty aunt and Imogen Poots as the pretty rich girl who almost derails Jane’s chances in love are memorable in brief moments, as is Valentina Cervi as the horror-movie special effect who is a more serious impediment to Jane’s happiness. And what about Rochester? It is not easy to dispel the shadow of Orson Welles, who nearly crushed Joan Fontaine in his overscaled embrace in the 1944 version, and Michael Fassbender, to his credit, does not try. His Rochester, greyhound lean, with a crooked, cynical smile set in an angular jaw, is very plausibly a thinking girl’s half-inappropriate crush object. (He was all too plausibly something similar in Fish Tank.) Rochester may be an impossible character — dashing, wounded, cynical, wild and yet somehow redeemable — but for that very reason he is vital to both the wild romanticism and the sober good sense that have kept Jane Eyre spinning through so many generations and interpretations. Mr. Fassbender adds to the necessary charisma and pathos a note of gallantry, helping to assure the audience and his indomitable co-star that this Jane Eyre belongs, as it should, to Jane. – A.O. Scott, The New York Times Official Trailer
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Directed by: 
Cary Fukunaga
Running Time: 
Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins, Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots
Screenplay by: 
screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on the Charlotte Bronte novel

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