The candlelight flickers exquisitely even as the passions are slow to ignite in this spare, shrewdly acted but not especially vital retelling of “Jane Eyre.” Favoring a darkly expressive visual approach that plays up the gothic extremity of Charlotte Bronte’s oft-filmed classic, helmer Cary Joji Fukunaga brings a temperament of steel to a stark, severe adaptation that provides only fleeting emotional and psychological access to its famous heroine. Michael Fassbender’s casting as one of cinema’s dreamier Rochesters may raise purist eyebrows but could also broaden Focus’ reach among younger women, certainly including but not limited to Bronte buffs.
From the 1944 Joan Fontaine-Orson Welles film to the 1996 version directed by Franco Zeffirelli, nearly every feature-length “Jane Eyre” has had to wrestle with the challenge of condensing Bronte’s episodic narrative, a task more easily managed by five-hour-plus adaptations such as the beloved 1983 miniseries. In an unusual gambit, scribe Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe”) shuffles the chronology with a simple, elegant framing device: Rather than detailing Jane’s cruel Victorian orphanhood, the opening scenes are marked by a sense of tragic inevitability as the older Jane (Mia Wasikowska) is seen fleeing Thornfield Hall, into a quintessentially Brontean landscape of wild moors and sodden English weather.
Jane is taken in by missionary St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters (Holliday Grainger, Tamzin Merchant), whose introduction early on underscores the absence of family that is Miss Eyre’s most wounding privation. This makes for an intuitive segue into her early years as a spirited child (Amelia Clarkson) brutally mistreated by her aunt (Sally Hawkins), who soon packs her off to a parochial hellhole to suffer the abuses of a self-righteous headmaster (Simon McBurney).
Though Fukunaga was hardly an orthodox choice to direct a period costumer after “Sin nombre” — his 2009 debut about Central American immigrants — his hand can be discerned in the film’s unusually blunt, visceral dramatization of Jane’s ordeals, such as an abrupt cut to the lash of a cane against the girl’s back. And whereas past adaptations have relied on voiceover as a substitute for Jane’s first-person narration, Fukunaga avoids such exposition with a bold insistence on image-driven storytelling.
There’s a bit of “The Turn of the Screw” in this “Jane Eyre”: When Jane is installed as a governess at Thornfield and received by Judi Dench’s benign, faintly reproving housekeeper, the house is cloaked in the sort of impenetrable shadows that might have been lensed by Gordon Willis. Disquieting later passages — from Jane’s first meeting with the surly, mysterious Rochester (Fassbender) to her growing awareness of some malevolent, unseen presence — are shot with the shivery atmospherics of a horror picture.
The subtle visual inflections and deliberately constricted performances contribute to a slow-burn effect that compels up to a point. The attraction between Jane and Rochester initially remains at a barely perceptible simmer, as Wasikowska and Fassbender bring an icy, combative edge to their scenes that doesn’t melt until the last possible moment. But melt it does, as both actors credibly and movingly reveal emotions their characters scarcely have the ability to acknowledge.
At this point, however, the narrative machinery of Bronte’s tale dutifully clicks in, and even the script’s structural tweaks can’t ward off the perfunctory feel inherent in the preponderance of third-act revelations. The camera’s restless pans across the rugged countryside, set to the increasingly high-strung violins of Dario Marianelli’s score, begin to smack of stylistic desperation, as the film becomes content to observe its heroine’s actions without penetrating her consciousness. These problems are hardly unique to this “Jane Eyre,” which affords a few piercing moments by dint of its performances but never threatens to sweep the viewer away.
After her decisive breakthrough last year in “The Kids Are All Right” and “Alice in Wonderland,” Australian thesp Wasikowska again impresses. Looking glum and dowdy, her pale, spectral beauty peeking out only intermittently from behind a hard, pinched countenance, the actress carries the burden of Jane’s suffering in every frame, conveying her broken spirit but also her fiercely honest and independent nature.
Some may deem Fassbender too handsome for a man described in the book as decidedly unattractive, but the protean Irish thesp evinces a reptilian quality that repels and fascinates, keeping one guessing as to what this belligerent, elusive and clearly tormented figure feels or doesn’t feel for Jane. If Fassbender looks younger than other Rochesters, the crucial age gap is delicately sustained by the fact that Wasikowska looks younger than other Janes.
Lensed in somber, muted tones by Adriano Goldman, the picture is handsomely appointed in all respects, particularly by production designer Will Hughes-Jones and costume designer Michael O’Connor. Sound design is exceptionally crisp.