Jane Eyre

DON'T OPEN THE TOWER DOOR: Mia Wasikowsa's Jane Eyre finds secrets she didn't expect in Mr. Rochester's gloomy mansion.

WHAT is Jane Eyre? A story of a man being tamed? A tale of a woman's trauma-induced pride? Does the novel persist because, at heart, it's a variation of the Bluebeard story?

Some 22 TV and film versions of Jane Eyre exist. There are also several adaptoids: the movie of Jean Rhys' prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, the superb Val Lewton pastiche I Walked With a Zombie and even Andrea Martin's "heart-rendering" 1982 performance on SCTV as the half-witted "Jane Eyrehead."

What can a new version bring? The answer is all the freshness, intelligence and sensitivity of a major new director, as well as a shining performance by Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland). This Jane Eyre is atmospheric yet unself-conscious—maybe the best film version ever. It is directed by former Santa Cruzan Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre).

Fukunaga says he hasn't been to Santa Cruz in the 11 years since he graduated from UC-Santa Cruz, "but I could probably drive Highway 17 with my eyes closed."

I had interviewed Fukunaga right before the release of Sin Nombre. He had then had the air of someone cornered by both fame and the press. For our Jane Eyre interview, he was engaging and well dressed, with a tweed cap and with a small gold Hand of Fatima dangling at his throat; accompanying him on interviews was Wasikowska.

Seeing her recalled the feeling I had when learning that she had been cast as Jane Eyre and worrying that she was too beautiful for the role. On camera, she turns out to be the perfect Jane: pale, her hair tightly braided and dyed a dull brick red, embodying the fine bones and honesty of the bravest Gothic heroine.

Fukunaga said that he was a fan of just one movie version of the tale. He meant the 1943 version starring Los Gatos' own Joan Fontaine. Fontaine is described as "a strange wild elfin creature" despite being palpably frail, meek and in her mid-20s. However, the 1943 Jane Eyre is two-thirds film noir. And as the haunted Rochester, Orson Welles delivers his lines with a voice that indeed sounded as if it had rumbled out of a rocky chest.

Fukunaga has for his Rochester Michael Fassbender. This compact, glowering actor reminded me of something David Thomson had suggested: was it at all possible that Peter O'Toole had been Welles' illegitimate son? Fassbender is midway between the two actors, more harrowed and more hurt than either.

Moira Buffini's script makes the smart and unusual choice to circumvent Jane's horrifying school years (the 1943 version adapted this section impeccably). Jane is first seen in transit between Thornfield Hall and what is usually the slowest part of the tale: her time with the churchly St. John Rivers and his good sisters.

It's been said that some of the hardest kind of acting is acting in the rain. In the first scenes here, Jane is homeless, soaked and in anguish. "Yes, that's pretty much where we started filming," said Wasikowska. "I remember precisely because I got hypothermia. I thought that was something that was really great about the script, that it started with an instant mystery."

Fukunaga added, "I really like that the first few scenes are at the Rivers house. You don't know if you can trust Jane, but you connect with her on an organic level."

Fukunaga establishes the loneliness of the moors immediately with lens flare and the live sound of the winds slamming the microphones. "The wind wasn't deliberate," Fukunaga said. "I don't like rerecorded studio sound generally. I prefer to go with dirtier sound. It's always a battle with everyone in the room: I'm saying, 'I get it, I can hear what everyone's saying,' and they say they can't hear. We have to balance it out between us."

These first scenes, shot in the Peak District of Derbyshire, aren't too far from the novel's locations. According to Fukunaga, "I wanted to make this Jane Eyre authentic, couched in reality. A lot of versions of Jane Eyre use voice-over. But there's only one scene in our film where we actually hear Jane's narration."

Fukunaga wasn't opposed to using narration—"I do like films with a lot of voice-over," he says, as a fan of Terence Malick's cinema. "In Malick films, the narration isn't just there to deliver info," he said. "It's part of the music and the poetry of the film. It's much more lyrical. It meanders."

Jane's voice is unmistakable: the book is about a solitary girl watching the people around her, guarding her feelings from those who have the power to hurt her. Mia Wasikowska joked that Jane would be a blogger today.

Wasikowska explained that "it's very easy for period films to get melodramatic. There's so much info about what's happening in Jane's head. That was the biggest challenge from start to finish. You're hearing every thought in her head—how do you transfer all that info?"

Jane Eyre is a story of cruelty, mostly. Sin Nombre was hard stuff to take, with extreme gangster violence. But this Gothic tale is in its way just as horrifying: a story of imprisonment, possession and young girls done to death in a wretched school for the poor. I told Fukunaga a story of Martin Scorsese selling his version of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence to the press: "This is the most violent movie I've made."

"Definitely some emotional violence here," Fukunaga said. "What I started to realize is that in every one of my films there are kids getting beaten. I don't know what that says about me."

The book has a passage of Jane coolly summing up Adele, the 8-year-old child she is nannying, as a flashy, attention-craving mediocrity. The new Jane Eyre suggests some of this antipathy. Fukunaga, whose original version was 3 hours and 45 minutes, had to cut a scene amplifying these sentiments. Without seeing the longer version, it's hard to say how the two compare. Sometimes, in adaptations of very well-known stories, such severe pruning can make a film all the more urgent.

Mia addressed Jane's working life: "She was really disgruntled. One thing dawned on me when I got to the set: Jane is 18 and has full responsibility for an 8-year-old child. That's her job all day. She's the same as any 18-year-old today, except her responsibilities are huge, and she's been through stuff they can't imagine."

Fukunaga added, "What I hope we've got here is the originality of Jane Eyre's thought. There's the line Rochester has about how 'not one in 3,000 governesses would have answered as you do.' She persists as a heroine because she's such a good example to people. Quite often people just repeat what they're told, still to this day."

A combination of popularity and rare talent is what you hope for in a film. This Jane Eyre couldn't be better news. A young audience that associates Gothic lit with the collected works of Stephenie Meyer will be exposed to a story rich with depths and cross currents: dreamy, tragic, completely fulfilling.

Jane Eyre

PG-13; 120 min.

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