Review: Jane Eyre

JANE EYRE (M)

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell

Screening: Newcastle, Glendale, Hoyts Charlestown, Tuggerah, Erina, Avoca

Rating: ***

LONG before there was Twilight and Team Edward, there was Charlotte Bronte’s gloriously doomy saga of ill-fated romance between a plain but spirited girl and a mysterious hunk tortured by dark demons.

At last count, Bronte’s 1847 novel has been made into a film 18 times since the first in 1910, as well as at least nine television adaptations.

This new one, starring Australia’s Mia Wasikowska (from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), is a welcome addition: a handsome heartbreaker, unapologetically melodramatic and with happy-ever-after austerity measures and grandly Gothic heebie-jeebies.

And let’s not forget prim bonnets and corsets for all the ladies and magnificent muttonchops for the blokes.

The film opens, somewhat cryptically, with a young woman in a hooded cloak fleeing a darkened manor house, scrambling across rain-swept countryside to escape an unspecified peril.

She is eventually taken in by a dour young clergyman (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) and nursed back to health by his kindly sisters.

Poor Jane Eyre has quite a tale of woe to tell, which is when the film circles back to the events leading up to that tear-stained flight across the moors.

As the feisty orphan moves from her loveless childhood monstered by an awful aunt, through her cruel days at a severe boarding school to her position as the manor house governess, Jane is revealed to be humble and honest, wise beyond her years and independent in word and deed.

In other words, a quietly sympathetic heroine.

And yet naivety about men and the darker corners of human nature are exposed when she falls for her employer at Thornfield Hall, Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender).

Dashing but cynical, wild but wounded, unreachable yet utterly irresistible, Mr Rochester is equally fascinated by the candour and restraint of Jane, whom he calls a ‘‘rare unearthly thing’’.

Their first fireside conversation, an exceedingly polite but vigorous verbal joust, is exquisite.

What unfolds thereafter, as Jane opens her heart and has it crushed by the terrible truths lurking in Thornfield’s attic, makes for grandly melancholy melodrama.

Handsomely filmed, elegantly acted and shrewdly re-constructed from the book using flashbacks to weave together the sprawling story, this Jane Eyre savours Bronte’s brooding undercurrent of angst while retaining its essential romantic heart.

Wasikowska makes a perfect Jane, a heroine the author famously described as “plain and small”.

The actress adopts a minimalist approach. Her pale skin, tight-lipped frown, watchful stare and severely parted hair, together with mostly drab outfits, make for muted emotion.

There is simple elegance in her method although, as invigorating as her exchanges with Fassbender are, Wasikowska’s portrayal is in danger of appearing inert at times.

This means the erotic potential of that initial fireside exchange never flames as vividly as you would hope.

Fassbender, the German-born Irish actor last seen levitating submarines in X-Men: First Class, makes a captivating heartbreaker, swinging with ease between menace, vulnerability and melancholy.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (in his second feature after the engrossing Sin Nombre) makes the most of marvellous backdrops and settings.

And his interior scenes chill just so, as creaking floorboards and howling wind outside bring the goosebumps.

This Jane Eyre is not a radical re-do or a provocative re-think, rather a well-appointed revival.

Judi Dench is a delight as Thornfield’s salt-of-the-earth housekeeper Mrs Fairfax and Sally Hawkins is superb as Jane’s despicable aunt.

The tender misery and delicate heartache of this Jane Eyre should please lovers of grandly tragic love stories that have no need for vampires and werewolves.

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