Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is undeniably a classic, insofar as it has given countless generations of teenage girls a serious case of the hormonal tremors (and unrealistic expectations of what to expect from romance). The novel, it must also be said, splashes about at the shallow end of the literary pool: despite its well-drawn heroine and proto-feminist credentials it also bears responsibility for providing the formula for literally thousands of Harlequin Romance books and related brands of romance porn. Jane Austen it ain’t.
So, with more than 24 film and TV versions already behind us, do we really need this latest iteration?
Most critics have said an unequivocal yes; I’m not so sure. By far its greatest virtue is Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland), who brings an appealing expressiveness to the title role of the young governess with the harsh past who finds herself on very unsafe ground when she starts to feel attracted to her employer, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds).
All the standard romance tropes are here: the stern and brooding older man; misunderstandings involving a glamorous young woman he spends time with; storms on the moors to act as metaphors; and troubling issues of class (or a “gender-based power differential” as it’s now styled in trendy circles). And of course there is that Dark Secret hanging over the peevish head of Mr. Rochester that further throws his cold stone mansion into troubled gloom.
This well-trod territory is deftly handled by up-and-coming director Cary Fukunaga, a gifted visual stylist who brings a subtler and less Gothic feel to this 160-year-old tale. But not only does the plot creak almost as much as the stairs at Thornfield Hall, Fassbender’s Mr. Rochester is such an unlikable, charmless lump that when Jane starts to fall for him you want to sign her up for one of those intervention shows on reality TV.
There is a high polish of Masterpiece Theatre-style period perfection brought to bear here, but with the lack of romantic chemistry between the two leads and Fassbender’s inability to bring either interest or complexity to his Rochester, the result, however atmospheric, is mostly a soggy slog on those timeless moors.