There have been scores of adaptations of Charlotte Bronte's most famous novel over the years – six since 1970 alone. Why does this novel continue to prickle and resonate with filmmakers so much? For one thing, it speaks to a very specific and telling period of time in European gender politics; for another, it's wide open enough to beg for many different treatments. For his effort, director Cary Fukunaga has seen fit to bring out the mysterious horror behind the heavy closed drapes of the English castles in which his protagonists dwell. The result is a kind of J-horror "Masterpiece Theater," Merchant/Ivory meets "A Tale of Two Sisters."
As the film begins, Jane (Mia Wasikowska) has just fled the stately mansion of Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), where she was the governess of his young ward (Romy Settbon Moore) and, supposedly, the love of his life. Through their peculiar courtship, the stern, unforgiving Rochester has also been harboring a dark secret from his young fiancé, one that precludes them from legally marrying each other. Distraught, Jane flees the area, finding solace with a young reverend (Jamie Bell) and his sisters, who get her a job as a schoolmistress. But the damning allure of the love Rochester promised her proves too much for her to bear.
First and foremost, Fukunaga, a former DP, has made a gorgeous film, capturing the essence of the bleak, harsh beauty of the north England Derbyshire countryside, and the ways in which Jane is at once of the place and completely alienated from it. He lights his scenes with a variety of flickering flames, from candles to roaring fireplaces, but the shadows lurk and creep in every frame. At night, as Jane tries to sleep, Rochester's castle moans and twists with sound, almost as if it were a ship, swaying on a perilous Atlantic crossing. As Jane, Wasikowska is equal parts fierce, vulnerable and intense, railing against the constraints of her gender without ever relinquishing her own self-regard; as such, she's a good pairing with Fassbender, who wrings out the bitter and cruel-minded qualities of Rochester, even as they are revealed to be a thinly-veiled deception for the anguished soul that lies beneath.
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All this the film gets right, where it flutters is in its pace. As a two-hour film, screenwriter Moira Buffini strains to capture the essential plot points while giving the piece enough space to breathe properly. The film is far better when it shrugs off the heavy narrative and just plays ominous, with storm clouds closing in, mysterious screeches and the ever-present rustling of the wind pushing through a dark, misty wood.