Just when you think the umpteenth adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's beloved 1847 novel couldn't possibly add anything new to the library of cinematic classics, director Cary Joji Fukunaga proves you wrong. Besides featuring rising stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, the handsome British production successfully explores the mindscape of the "small and plain" heroine.
Instead of telling the tale in chronological order, screenwriter Moira Buffini ("Tamara Drewe") begins with the adult Jane (Wasikowska of "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Kids Are All Right"), diminutive in a long shot, at a crossroads on the mist-shrouded moors. Sobbing and "white as death," Jane unleashes her emotions in an opening both atmospheric and wordless -- yet true to the spirit of Bronte's first-person narrative.
Only after being taken in by cleric St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell of "Billy Elliot") and his sisters (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant) does Jane recall her unhappy time as the orphaned ward of her aunt (Sally Hawkins of "Happy-Go-Lucky"). The flashback takes us to the novel's opening scene and establishes the admirable traits of the 10-year-old girl: independent, imbued with a sense of fairness and justice, and calm but with a burning passion beneath her drab exterior.
Buffeted about by fate and subject to the cruel inequities of class and gender, Jane eventually becomes the governess of Thornfield Hall and falls in love with the master of the manor house, Edward Rochester (Fassbender of "Hunger" and "Inglourious Basterds").
Wasikowska's understated performance engenders sympathy, particularly when Jane suffers through numerous false accusations, beatings and disappointments. She emanates a quiet strength and enduring spirit, making her few emotional outbursts even more dramatic. The young actor owns the movie. When Fassbender stumbles into the picture as the brooding Rochester, he sweeps the impressionable woman off her feet but doesn't steal the show. "You are my equal and my likeness," he says, as the love story takes flight.
Although straying far from the dangerous territory of the Central American immigrants and Mexican gang members of "Sin Nombre," Fukunaga and lenser Adriano Goldman bring visual and visceral punch to the Victorian era. The team created stark images of lonely vistas and boxed-in environments that externalize Jane's inner feelings. A gothic eeriness hovers over the movie, sometimes making one question the sanity of the governess, and other times suggesting an invisible world of spirits.
Either way, the filmmakers pull us inside Jane's feverish imagination while hinting at the dark secrets behind Thornhill's closed doors. Judi Dench, who plays the caring housekeeper of the manor house, provides the few moments of levity in the film.
Reader, a new generation will most likely enjoy discovering this enduring classic on the big screen.