Jane Eyre was the Twilight of its day. Now, don’t get angry. I’ve read both books (well, skimmed, in the case of Twilight), and I know Stephenie Meyer is no Charlotte Brontë. Both, however, crafted highly marketable tales based on an enduring female fantasy: meeting a desirable man who’s more interested in you than in anything else.
And not just sexually. From the time wealthy landowner Mr. Rochester meets the book’s teenage heroine — whom he’s hired as his ward’s governess — he’s fascinated by the combination of smarts and stubbornness in her slight, socially negligible frame. For her part, downtrodden orphan Jane mistakes her employer’s constant needling attention for dislike (Bella does the same with Edward’s glares), but the reader knows the truth. The rich dude is smitten. Too bad he has a secret in his attic — and it doesn’t involve craving blood.
Unlike Meyer, Brontë didn’t live to see her book make bank and become a cultural icon. (Early reviewers found it highly inappropriate reading for young girls.) But in her posthumous existence, she’s made up for lost time: Director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s new adaptation of Jane Eyre is the ninth to hit the screen. It’s a good one, for one simple reason: chemistry.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland), who’s not far from her teens and can pass for mousy, plays Jane. Irish actor Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, the acclaimed Hunger) is Rochester. From their first fireside conversation, it’s clear he’s not going to be an aloof presence like William Hurt was in the tepid 1996 version.
When Rochester teases Jane with talk of local folklore, she responds in kind, showing her sophistication — and perplexing the housekeeper (Judi Dench), who expects the young governess to act like a servant. The screenplay, by British playwright Moira Buffini, cuts most of Brontë’s verbiage but captures the essence of this scene. It’s basically a successful speed-dating session: two like minds clicking together. Fassbender’s sparkling attentiveness and Wasikowska’s sly reciprocation do the rest, and their convincing connection carries the film.
For a Victorian tale, this Jane Eyre is pretty sexy — purists may say too sexy, considering the dearth of premarital kissing and nuzzling in the book. The filmmakers don’t go too far with these liberties, however. They do tone down the novel’s gothic elements — a somewhat disappointing choice, but an understandable one. Rather than creeping us out with the mystery of screams from the attic, this Jane Eyre focuses on the real-life conflicts that make those howls seem like manifestations of Jane’s own buried passions.
With a restrained palette, Fukunaga (who made the more colorful Sin Nombre) conveys the climate of religious self-denial that surrounds the heroine almost everywhere, from her childhood at Lowood School to her later experience with the missionary St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell). When Jane gets close to Rochester, the camera becomes more mobile, and nature — blowing trees, clouds bursting over the moors — conveys the emotions she can’t express. Love offers the only escape from deathly self-constraint, but at a price.
Young viewers unfamiliar with Victorian mores may not understand what a steep price that was, or why Brontë needed a deus ex machina ending. Then again, Twilight has some of its readers yelling at the virginal vampire, “Just do it, already!” So maybe some things — such as the power of repression to render a romance unforgettable — never change.