There's been no shortage of film versions of "Jane Eyre," Charlotte Bronte's classic tale of romance and woe.
Most notably, Orson Welles co-starred opposite Joan Fontaine back in 1944; Franco Zeffirelli adapted the novel in the mid-1990s with Charlotte Gainsbourg in the title role and William Hurt as the tortured Edward Rochester (with Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson, of all people, as the rival for his affections).
Now, yet another take on the 1847 novel has come to the screen, with Cary Joji Fukunaga directing Moira Buffini's script, which shakes things up by messing with the narrative structure. It begins with Jane fleeing the imposing Thornfield Hall in hysterics and is told mainly in flashback, which creates tension from the start — even if you know the story.
Fukunaga may seem like an odd choice to direct such revered literary material; his last film, "Sin Nombre," was a contemporary and violent tale of Central Americans making their way through Mexico on their way to the United States. But both are about people searching for a place to belong, and they share a visceral immediacy.
Visually and tonally, his "Jane Eyre" is muted, stripped-down; it's gooey and marshy, vast and grassy, anything but lush — and that's what makes it beautiful. The pacing might even be a bit too low-key, but because it is, and because the attraction between Jane and Rochester simmers for so long, it makes the passionate bursts stand out even more. This version also emphasizes the tale's darker Gothic elements, adding a sense of horror that's both disturbing and welcome.
Regardless of aesthetics, the relationship between Jane and Rochester is at the heart of the story — it's the source of emotion — and Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender challenge and beguile each other beautifully. Wasikowska, who co-starred last year in Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and in the Academy Award best-picture nominee "The Kids Are All Right," continues to show her versatility here. She's all intelligence and determination, and very much Fassbender's equal in terms of presence. Fassbender, who was devastating as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in "Hunger," plays the iconically tragic character of Rochester with all the necessary wit, ferocity and torment.
Jane has come to work at Thornfield Hall, the remote manor Rochester owns but rarely visits, as a governess following a difficult childhood as an orphan (Amelia Clarkson is sharp as the tough young Jane). Head housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) runs the place with a mix of pride and vague disapproval of Rochester's volatile ways. But once he finally comes and meets Jane, he instantly recognizes in her a kindred spirit, and she feels the same — although she's loath to admit it.
Jamie Bell co-stars as the other potential suitor in Jane's life, St. John Rivers, the young man of God who views her as an ideal missionary's wife; the fact that they don't love each other yet is irrelevant to him. Still, it's Jane's idealism — despite the difficult and lonely life she'd led — that keeps her striving for something better, more fulfilling.
Society would seem to dictate that Jane and Rochester can't be together. But it's their pasts that are really keeping them apart — their secrets, and the walls they've built up for themselves. So when they finally admit their feelings, their words come out in an emotional torrent.
Bring tissues. You've been warned.