‘Jane Eyre’ rises again, & it’s first-rate

Posted: March 24, 2011

"Jane Eyre" is the lumbering Bronte-saurus of cinema, still un-extinct after 18 adaptations.

That's not counting a couple of TV miniseries (the latest an '06 BBC job) that pulled the Charlotte Bronte story out of gothballs.

And it's certainly not counting SCTV send-up "Jane Eyrehead," in which Andrea Martin's Jane is hilariously slow to wake up to strange noises coming from the upstairs room of her wealthy suitor/master.

The SCTV interpretation speaks to the modern woman - these days, girls, you have a right to know what's in your boyfriend's attic.

It's a lesson heeded by the latest heir to the Eyre tradition - Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland"), whose Jane is one of the screen's all-time toughest, and most relatable.

Early scenes establish the orphaned Jane's bred-in-the-bone resilience - bullied by a cousin, mistreated by her cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins!), she doesn't give an inch, and so is packed off to a religious boarding school where further horrors await (though very much abridged from the novel).

Jane emerges in adult form as Wasikowska, who's exactly right for this role. She has a stoic defiance (also on display in "The Kids Are All Right") that is never insolent or wounded, and that here seems to come from a place of otherworldly self-confidence.

This makes her a source of fascination to her new master - she finds work as a governess to the reclusive gentleman Mr. Rochester, whose initial bullying is met with Jane's tactful, forceful rebuttal. Rochester is smitten.

He's played by Michael Fassbender, whose chemistry/contrast with Wasikowska is very good. He's large, deep-voiced, his Rochester moody, fitful and self-pitying. Wasikowska is smaller, frail, quiet and pale, but emotionally unshakable. The trials that have weakened Rochester have only made Jane stronger.

The power reversal brought about by their mutual attraction and complementary flaws/attributes has rarely been better committed to screen, or made more intriguing.

Our belief in the relationship keeps us invested in "Eyre" even as its dated gender/class ideas test (sometimes too much) our 21st-century sensibilities, and the story rolls out its gothic hooey.

Also holding our interest is the movie's ravishing, understated presentation. Director Cary Fukunaga's first film - the harrowing migrant story "Sin Nombre" - was ripped for being too beautiful.

His instinct for the showy image will not be a point of contention here. The cool beauty he brings to "Jane Eyre" complements the long tradition of costume drama style.

Supporting performances are also first-rate. Judi Dench tamps down her intelligence to play Rochester's dotty housekeeper; Jaime Bell is quietly attentive then intrusive as Jane's missionary admirer.

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