With this new ‘Jane Eyre’, Irish leading man Michael Fassbender cements his natural flair for playing muscular, sexually domineering and morally tainted alpha males. His embittered, gentleman-seducer take on Edward Fairfax Rochester in this sumptuous adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s gothic bildungsroman is enough to give most viewers the vapours, and it dovetails nicely with his role as the poverty-line predator in Andrea Arnold’s ‘Fish Tank’.
Yet, as much as director Cary ‘Sin Nombre’ Fukunaga’s camera is smitten by Fassbender’s lusty, mutton-chopped magnetism, it’s young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska who insouciantly tiptoes off with this film. She delivers a turn of impeccable authority and poise, her Jane is a padlocked closet of suppressed childhood trauma, sexual confusion and aggressive self-preservation. Unlike Fassbender, Wasikowska doesn’t have form as a leading lady: the depth, charisma and technical rigour here were largely absent from her headlining role in Tim Burton’s CG folly, ‘Alice in Wonderland’. But this marks a breakthrough performance, perhaps too subtle and careful to be lavished with silverware come awards season, but worthy of it.
The story opens with a petrified Jane making a mad dash from the dusky confines of Thornfield Manor and on to the misty moors. She finds sanctuary with Jamie Bell’s Puritan minister and begins to regale him with her ‘tale of woe’. Brought up with an iron fist then swiftly packed off to boarding school by an evil aunt (a nicely counter-cast Sally Hawkins), she is punished for her objections to the injustices meted out by the whip-wielding staff and receives a series of brutal lessons on the nature of mortality, hollowness of love and sublime indifference of God. Her eventual employment as governess of Thornfield, working underneath Judi Dench’s fusspot housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, places virtuous and chaste Jane in the salacious sights of Mr Rochester.
Fukunaga’s eerily atmospheric adaptation keeps the corset strings tightly knotted while placing this fascinating chalk/cheese courtship against a backdrop of ritualistic Northern English decadence. Rochester, a man for whom money and charm has enabled him to fulfil his every whim, is blindsided by Jane, a woman haunted by her past who easily holds her own in the thrilling verbal duels the couple share.
Even when his accent falters, Fassbender’s performance is one of tragic Wellesian grandeur. But it’s Wasikowska’s vigorous, unflappable presence that supplies the film with its soul. Fukunaga’s movie is heavy on dialogue, but he adds visual texture in the framing of characters, dusty, naturalistic lighting and elegant shots of the decaying country stack. Unwilling to betray the source material, Fukunaga falls foul of pacing in a lumpen, overtly moralistic coda, but only because what came before felt so rhythmically assured, intellectually substantial and smoulderingly romantic. This is no plain Jane.