A word of warning for fans of sweeping period romances: This is not the Jane Eyre you are looking for. Young director Cary Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini pull everything dark out of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel and unleash it in all its gothic glory on the big screen. Although this version chops vast swaths of the original text, it is, in many ways, a much truer adaptation than most of the 5 trillion others, which have tended to polish away the characters' rough edges—including casting inordinately good-looking stars to play characters who repeatedly talk about how ugly they are. Really, most of the characters in the original novel are assholes—ugly assholes—and Fukunaga doesn't shy away from that.
Jane (who is not an asshole, but rather our painfully puritanical yet endearingly strong-willed proto-feminist heroine) is portrayed terrifically by 21-year-old actress Mia Wasikowska, whose young age and plain yet captivating, otherworldly appearance is half the point of the character. The film picks up about three-quarters into the story—Jane is stumbling, semiconscious and sobbing through endlessly depressing, rainy English moors—relating most of her woeful life story through flashback. This is a neat trick that allows us to brush through her unpleasant but tedious childhood, to the meaty bit where she arrives, a 19-year-old governess, to the perpetually poorly lit world of Thornfield Hall. Here, she meets her new master, Edward Rochester, who is an asshole (a kind of lecherous old one at that, at around age 40, although the casting of 30-something Michael Fassbender is generous), but who nevertheless falls for her intelligence and unpretentious charms and comes to treat her as something of an equal, before it all goes to shit when it turns out he is, indeed, an asshole. A desperate, fleeing Jane is then rescued by another asshole, the preacher St. John (a decidedly non-dancing Jamie Bell), and the flashbacks come full circle.
It's a visually stunning piece of work, full of howling halls, spooky forests, fire and blood, which highlight perfectly the bleakness and isolation of a poor woman's world in that era. Even when the romantic story line kicks in, it's hard to share in the lovers' happiness due to the ever-present sense that it's all about to go horribly wrong. And if the film has a failing, it's this. While Jane Eyre is a story of pain, anger and defiance—all of which Fukunaga nails—it is also a love story, and in his effort to eliminate as much sunlight and dialogue as possible, the filmmaker fails to create a particularly believable relationship between the two main protagonists. The battles of wills, the banter, the story of two beings meeting as one are all condensed into about 1½ scenes. It's only a major problem in comparison to the book—the film otherwise holds together well, and the lack of romance just makes it even more deliciously dark—but it's hard not to think what might have been with just 15 extra minutes.
The other missed opportunity comes at the very end, when Jane is supposed to find Mr. Rochester burned and deformed—yet redeemed—from the fire that destroys Thornfield and his past sins. Instead, after all the preceding 110 minutes of misery and despair, he looks like he's just been off playing bass for Band of Horses, merely sporting a bushy folk beard and a slightly disheveled shirt. Others may not be quite so disappointed as I was after a good 30 minutes fantasizing about just how they'd rearrange his face. But the book says "mutilated," and we get Devendra Banhart. That may be the film's darkest twist of all. PG-13.
77 SEE IT: Jane Eyre opens Friday at Fox Tower.