By Ann Hornaday
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:45 PM
Sweet Jane. Or is she?
"Jane Eyre" counts as one of the most-adapted novels for the screen, with Cary Joji Fukunaga's version the latest of dozens. Surely part of the novel's appeal is its upright title character, who suffers miserably and unfairly, first at the hands of her abusive aunt, then at a sadistic girls' school and finally with that master of mixed signals, Edward Rochester.
But for many readers, Jane is no quivering heath blossom, meekly waiting for Mr. Rochester to cast an eye her way. She has spirit enough to call out the social mores and religious hypocrisies of 19th-century Britain, and it's precisely that rebellious spark that draws Mr. Rochester to her in the first place.
And it's just that spark that's fatally missing from Mia Wasikowska's elegant but inert portrayal in "Jane Eyre," which while qualifying as the most gorgeously appointed and finely detailed version of the novel so far, still lacks the element of essential fire to make it come fully, even subversively, to life.
While Michael Fassbender infuses Rochester with suitable proportions of menace, vulnerability and Byronic melancholy, too many scenes resemble the cinematic equivalent of a no-hitter, with Fassbender sending out teasingly seductive pitches and an expressionless Wasikowska letting them sail over her primly erect head.
Still, if Jane and Rochester's encounters never quite achieve the passionate flames of mutual comprehension that Charlotte Bronte so famously celebrated in her 1847 novel, that doesn't detract too much from "Jane Eyre's" illustrative pleasures. Fukunaga, who made an astonishing debut in 2009 with "Sin Nombre," proves just as adept at evoking the Derbyshire landscape as Mexican gangland, setting Jane in an arrestingly windswept, rain-drenched moor.
Inside Thornfield Hall, his attention to detail never flags; no movie in recent memory has exploited 19th-century lighting implements with as much rich, lambent luster.
"Jane Eyre" purists will applaud Fukunaga's decision to allow Jane the time to set up housekeeping with St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters, an interlude that serves as a sort of bloodless mirror image to her time at Thornfield with Rochester, his ward Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), their faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), and - sorry, what was that sound in the hall? As alert to "Jane Eyre's" classic Gothic elements as to its heaving romance, Fukunaga infuses his heroine's world with mysterious spirits and puffs of smoke, so that when Thornfield's apparition finally appears in the flesh, the scene is of a piece with a darkly enchanted world.
Only one sequence, late in the movie, threatens to jar fans of the book by taking artistic liberties, but that's the only visible sign that Fukunaga has compromised in acquitting "Jane Eyre's" chief duty, which is to capitalize on the popularity of the "Twilight" franchise. With its air of gloom and glower, eroticism of desire and restraint and whiff of mortal danger, "Jane Eyre" could be read as the foundational text for all 'tween-oriented vamp-and-wolf narratives that came after it. If this "Jane Eyre" turns out to be the Bronte gateway for girls who came of age with Bella Swan and her moodily difficult love interest, that's all to the good: Ladies, welcome to the original Team Edward.
PG-13. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains some thematic elements, including a nude image and brief violent content. 120 minutes.