Plain Jane

This Victorian classic doesn’t live up to its past

Nobody needs a sixth remake of Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic Victorian novel. But filmmakers just can’t resist the camera-ready thrill and romance of Jane Eyre. So it’s back to the Yorkshire moors, the birdlike stirrings in the unloved heart of the orphaned Jane, the creepy mansion of the brooding Edward Fairfax Rochester, the mystery of the screams in the night and the secret horror locked away in the attic, and the rest of the familiar territory already worn thin by the heavy feet of Orson Welles, Colin Clive and William Hurt. This version is workmanlike and nothing remarkable, but compared to the rest of the junk polluting screens today, it’s an elegant and welcome antidote.

It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose only previous feature is Sin Nombre, written by fledgling newcomer Moira Buffini, whose only major credit is the dreary Tamara Drewe, and it stars, in the title role, Australian Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland). None of them has the experience to tackle material with the scope of Jane Eyre, and it shows.

The extravagant, polished and highly superior 1944 film, directed by Robert Stevenson and written by Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, showed a dark, malignant side of Brontë. The new one aims more for pathos and passion. The highlights of the lengthy novel still outline the story of an abused orphan, cheated out of her inheritance and subjected to the indifference of a vicious aunt (Sally Hawkins) who ships her off to Lowood, a miserable prison of cruelty run by a heartless monster named Brocklehurst. But the details of Jane’s tortured childhood are too sketchy to have the same moving impact as the earlier versions. The Dickensian fate that awaited the children at Lowood is barely mentioned, and Brocklehurst, the sadistic schoolmaster so memorably played in 1944 by Henry Daniell, is barely mentioned. Worst of all, I miss the children—Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane, and the overwhelmingly appealing moppet Elizabeth Taylor as her fatally ill friend Helen—whose life-altering friendship is not explored here. I especially miss the enchanting Margaret O’Brien as Rochester’s lonely French ward, Adele.

The early part of the story is brushed over like a bad vacation. The screenplay is recklessly devoid of details. Gratefully, a group of fine performances take up the slack. As the missionary who rescues Jane, Jamie Bell is such a virile young screen presence that it’s hard to believe he played Billy Elliot.

Eventually finding a position as governess to Adele at the imposing Thornfield Hall and an immediate attraction to Rochester, the estate’s thorny, glowering master, Jane’s innocence and austerity do not convincingly mix with his manic-depressive unhappiness as their affection intensifies. As the brooding Rochester, Irish actor Michael Fassbender is a sexy improvement over the mumbling Welles. He’s less ferocious, he speaks clearly and plays Rochester as a sort of second cousin to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights with primal lust lingering beneath his hands-planted-in-the-lapels demeanor.

Wasikowska’s Jane is so subdued that she falls too easily under the spell of her master. Then when her anxiety and awe turn to love, it’s not entirely persuasive. Leave it the great Judi Dench, as the warm, compassionate housekeeper, who raises Jane Eyre above Masterpiece Theater.

The dialogue is often so arch and formal it needs translating, the direction heavy-handed and corny. Still, it’s grimly fascinating in ways that won’t lull you to sleep. You gotta hand it to Brontë—164 years since she gave hyper-kinetic Victorian schoolgirls their first sleepless nights, she’s pulling them in all over again.

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