In the 27th filmed adaptation of Jane Eyre (why not, right?), you can find everything you would expect to find: trees rustle, damp moors are crossed, wooded pathways are traversed, bonnets are worn, fireplaces burn, wicked schoolmarms are wicked and Judi Dench is scandalized. All the trappings of Charlotte Brontë's familiar gothic love story are here, without feeling too gothic or dusty, and they're crammed in at just around two hours so nobody gets bored.
Cary Fukunaga directs, this being only his second film, after 2009's Sin Nombre. Presumably, producers at Focus tapped a young sophomore in order to bring some freshness to the dog-eared text. But Fukunaga's style is familiar to anyone who's watched a handful of mainstream movies from the past five years. It's impossibly crisp, just handheld enough to feel contemporary without alienating anyone, and trades close-ups with mid-shots efficiently but without any energy. It's a do-gooder style about which only a real old-timer would find anything new. Fukunaga's aesthetic was gratuitously at odds with the rough subject matter of his first film (gang violence, train-hopping immigrants, attempted rape), and in this film it's so rigidly in line with the middling tone of the adaptation that it's suffocating.
Jane Eyre is told partly in flashback, beginning with Jane (Mia Wasikowska, who was a boring stiff as a smart high school senior in The Kids Are All Right and brings the same spirit to this film) running from Mr. Rochester's manor, so sick from her broken heart she might die. She's taken in by the Rivers siblings (Holliday Grainger, Tamzin Merchant and Jamie Bell, in full Masterpiece Theater mode) who ask where she's come from. Jane isn't forthcoming, but the film obliges, flashing back to her life as a child with her cruel aunt. This structure is lifeless, and the film would have opened with much more spark if it had begun where the first flashback does: Young Jane (Amelia Clarkson) being pursued through her aunt's house by her sword-wielding teenage cousin.
Jane is disowned by her aunt (Sally Hawkins, wasted) and is taken to a girls' school where we pause just long enough to watch her make a friend who dies in the next scene. Then young adult Jane is let out into the real world and gets a job as a governess for Mr. Rochester, whom she'll spend the rest of the movie inexplicably pining after.
Michael Fassbender, who was effective and amusingly one-note in Inglourious Basterds, plays Rochester, and this time a slightly more tuneful performance is required. Unfortunately, his Rochester is a stiff-jawed, spoiled rich guy who plays mind games with our dear Jane. (To be fair, Fukunaga's direction and the streamlined structure probably have a lot to do with this.) Jane Eyre is, in part, about a doomed love that shouldn't exist to begin with, so the character of Rochester shouldn't be sweeping audience members off their feet; there has to be discord between what Jane does and what we think is probably best for her. But the Rochester of this film version is such a needy, vacuous cipher that the Jane who loves him comes across as dumb, not doomed. A female director might have been more in tune with this challenge and found a way to meet both the needs of the story and the producers. Think of the smart, energetic and relatable Bright Star; that fresh gem of a film was brought to us by Jane Campion, who turns 57 this month.
But Fukunaga doesn't seem that interested in this story or these people. It's understandable if the stuffed shirts of Rochester Manor didn't intrigue him, but he had a crazy lady in the attic to play around with. He doesn't bother to do anything with her, either. Perhaps worst of all, he has no feel for the love story, taking it as a pre-existing condition of the film rather than the element that should propel it. This is not to say, of course, that a woman would have definitely handled Brontë's fiction better, but with so few opportunities given to female directors, it seems a shame that producers picked the wrong man for the job.