You’ve got your feminist self-determination in my swoony gothic love story and the peanut butter cup we’ve created is Jane Eyre, a fun new iteration of the Charlotte Brontë classic.
This time around, we start the movie with an adult Jane (Mia Wasikowska) running from Thornfield and walking until she passes out at the door of sourpuss goody-goody St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters. It’s as they care for her and as she slowly puts together a life as a teacher at a small country girls’ school that we see her full story in flashback: her young childhood with her cruel Aunt Reed (Sally Hawkins), Jane’s school years at the strict and dreary Lowood, her friendship with the sickly but good-hair-having Helen Burns (Freya Parks) and then of course Thornfield. We meet Thornfield housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and Adele Varens (Romy Settbon Moore), the French girl Jane Eyre is hired to be a governess for. And then, out of the mist on horseback comes Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), all mysterious and crankily handsome. Mr. Rochester is a rich man with a big ancestral house but he’s also a guy with secrets. He’s regularly in a bad mood, has this strange little French girl he’s agreed to raise and seems skittish about marriage, even though he’s flirting hard with local beauty Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots), the Meanie Von PopularGirl of this tale.
But because a book nerd wrote this story, it’s plain Jane, with her witty banter and her hidden depths, who has Rochester getting all declaration-of-love-y. Sure, Rochester’s house is apparently haunted by some kind of malevolent presence that tries to kill him by setting his bed on fire, but why not marry him?
For those who skipped this particular English lit class, Jane Eyre is not to be confused with your Jane Austen-y rom-coms (or sometimes more serious rom-drams) about love and manners. The Brontës — Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, Emily wrote Wuthering Heights — did not write books about drawing rooms and polite bounders who lead on nice girls while seeking a fortune. (Which is not to denigrate Austen — there are plenty of clever things to say about bounders and smart stories you can tell about drawing rooms.) Jane Eyre is that world gone haywire. Nobody keeps crazy wives in the attic or hears voices on the moors in Austen.
There is so much in the book Jane Eyre that you seldom get the whole story in one movie. The 1996 version with Charlotte Gainsbourg as the adult Jane, Anna Paquin as young Jane and a very unconvincing William Hurt as Rochester focused more on Jane’s early years — the hair-cutting scene about loyalty and the rein of terror of Lowood’s head Mr. Brocklehurst. Here, we get more of some of the parts of the book that usually get cut out of a movie — the Rivers house where she recuperates from her romance and Jane’s relationship with St. John and his sisters, her encounter with the Reeds later in life and this idea, which was a big part of my academic discussions of the book, of Jane’s right to personhood. Class and circumstance should make her not just a subordinate to Rochester but also easier to bend to his will when he wants her to make moral compromises. But Jane is all about equality — equality of rights even when the people are not equal in status. Equality even at the sacrifice of love. As giggle-worthy as that can all seem when placed against the backdrop of tragic romance and dark secrets, this movie does a good job of bringing those themes to the front of the story without making its characters seem ridiculously melodramatic or like lecturers in a History of the English Novel class. It gives the story its “modern” twist even while it gives us the lovey lurve that makes it so delicious.
I had my doubts about Wasikowska — a blonde Jane? forsooth! — but she makes a delightful Jane. She brings, if not more to the part, then different emotional stuff to her Jane than Gainsbourg did. While that 1996 Jane was much more traditional, there is something fresh and exciting about Wasikowska’s Jane — particularly when she talks about the limited horizons for women and how she wishes that were different — while still pulling from the essential core of Jane Eyre-ness. And Fassbender’s Rochester is finally the gruff dream-date you can understand a girl going a little crazy over. Fassbender and Wasikowska have real chemistry, which not only makes their love story more enjoyable but helps to sell some of the story’s shakier moments.
This Jane Eyre isn’t just a dutiful CliffsNotes for the book but an exciting retelling that’s faithful to the classic and its fans while still being inventive.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content. Directed by Cary Fukunaga and written by Moria Buffini (from the book by Charlotte Brontë), Jane Eyre is two hours long and distributed by Focus Features.