Those eagerly grabbing up classics just to lure audiences with the promise of modernized and revisionist plot twists, take heart. A classic is a classic for a reason, and no fancy trickery is needed to retell a well-loved story to an audience that probably already knows it by heart. Cary Fukunaga mounts the 15th – at least! – film adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 gothic novel “Jane Eyre”, yet manages to make it just as riveting and fresh as if it isn’t a story you’ve been forced to read in school at least two or three times; and he does it without resorting to turning Jane into a modern rom-com version of herself or adding vampires and zombies.
A simple twist in structure involving flashbacks and flash-forwards makes the well-trodden path seem new and exciting all over again. The story begins with Jane (Mia Wasikowska), the poor and orphaned but highly intelligent governess, fleeing across the atmospheric English moors, heartbroken and crying. Though we are pretty sure of when this occurs in the linear timeline of the plot, the film first inter-cuts this sequence with an abundant and welcome amount of time flashing back to Jane as a young girl, establishing the abuse and neglect she received from the only family she knows and then at the strict boarding school she is sent away to. Her upbringing is harsh, rigid, and repressive, and when Wasikowska finally appears to leave the school for Thornfield, to look after the young French charge of Michael Fassbender’s stormy Edward Rochester, she deftly gives Jane at least two distinct layers. On the surface, she is obedient, submissive and a strict teacher, but she also can’t hide her natural nurturing and affection towards her young charge Adele, and one look at her eyes shows the caged spirit that longs for freedom and more than her mundane existence.
And perhaps, like the straight man in a comedy routine, Wasikowska’s understated and nuanced portrayal of a repressed but strong-willed girl is underrated. She is no less deserving of praise, but indeed, it is Fassbender who steals every scene he’s in and essentially, the movie. Bringing a level of ruggedness and sexuality previously unseen, Fassbender’s Rochester is truly alive while surrounded by gloom and repression that feels more dead than alive, though certainly justifiably and purposely so. When Jane at last meets Rochester in the woods surrounding Thornfield, the movie is given its first jolt of life, and it’s under Rochester’s unwavering, steely gaze that Jane herself comes to life and comes of age. Instead of shacking the audience with the responsibility of just knowing that their unspoken sexual tension is an intangible, magical thing, Rochester and Jane engage in plenty of verbal swordplay that lends a depth and believability to their pairing. She is, though small in stature, his absolute equal mentally, and that is the biggest thing that draws him to her. The secrets and lies that are waiting in the wings to tear the new lovers apart are no small potatoes, but Fassbender and Wasikowska bring to life a couple that the audience absolutely knows should be together, not just because exposition tells us they are destined, but because we are shown their chemistry and compatibility abundantly on screen.
The supporting cast is also notably good, especially Sally Hawkins as Jane’s unabashedly cruel aunt and Jamie Bell’s minister St. John Rivers, who rescues Jane from heartbreak and likely hypothermia when she wanders upon his home in her hasty escape from Thornfield. In turn genuinely kind and borderline terrifying, Rivers represents that old archetype of the path a girl should choose, especially in Victorian times. Rivers would provide for and protect Jane, he would treat her with the utmost kindness and they engage in a life of worthy charity work. But to submit to Rivers is to break Jane’s own spirit, which Rochester brought shamelessly to the surface in their passionate love affair at Thornfield. Jane scoffs at Rivers’ assertion that the could learn to love each other enough to get by, knowing that could never satisfy her after everything she went through. Jane’s spirit has been freed and cannot be contained by rigid societal lines again, on full display as she shamelessly daydreams about Rochester chasing after her in a thoroughly modern romantic grand gesture, beating down her door and sweeping her into his arms without a word. Though she knows of all his dark secrets and all the things that should keep them apart, they are no longer enough to keep her from pursuing true happiness.
There is no way to modernize – or perhaps more bluntly, dumb down for the modern audience – “Jane Eyre”, but with sure-handed direction, a script of dialogue that rings believably dated but true, and substantive, layered acting, the new adaptation feels immediate, relatable and exactly the kind of revolutionary so many remakes and reboots attempt to be these days – all by planting its roots firmly and faithfully in Bronte’s original vision.