Review: Jane Eyre Is Gorgeously Gothic

A distraught young woman bursts out of a gloomy manor into gray mist and howling wind. Sobbing, she stumbles, bordered by an eerie sky split with lightning. A lull of sunrise-streaked horizon seems hopeful. Then she's thrust back in the storm. It's not clear how much time has passed during her feverish flight, but it's evident from her countenance, and that of the vast, barren landscape -- she's reeling with terror and despair.

And we're off! Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre unfurls. Fukunaga reportedly spent a lot of time rereading Charlotte Bronte's book so he could capture "that sort of spookiness that plagues the entire story ... there's been something like 24 adaptations, and it's very rare that you see those sorts of darker sides."

Well, it's rare no longer. Fukunaga's adaptation whispers and wails with all the Gothic goodness you'd wish for from the screen incarnation of Bronte's shuddersome romantic thriller. True to her iconic 19th-century novel, Fukunaga's omage chronicles the life of feisty, free-spirited and independent-minded orphan Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska). Cast out by her callow upper-crust aunt and raised in a "fire and brimstone" charity school where disciplining young minds equals caning and the "pedestal of infamy" -- a visual aid that helps illustrate "how barren the life of a sinner". Eyre learns early that she's a wicked, unwanted girl.

Wonderfully, the sublimely beautiful cinematography of the opening scene isn't lost when Eyre enters the filthy Dickensian Lowood School for Girls, it's merely transmuted. Soft, ethereal white light wafts through her hard grim surroundings. An arresting contrast of light and shadow that conveys gothic mood, mystery and other worldliness throughout the film. When Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to serve as governess, she's welcomed by the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (period-film pro Judy Dench) into a home hidden in darkness except where the flickering fire light reveals its rich brown wood and warm gold walls. It's an inviting change from the bleak institute's gray stone and pale light, yet shrouded in intrigue.

When Bronte's brooding Byronic hero, the estate's wealthy owner Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) returns from afar, he is instantly transfixed by the decades younger governess and her directness and sharp wit. He asks Jane if she finds him handsome, to which she bluntly replies, no. He then later remarks that she's no more pretty than he is handsome. Of course, even with raggedy muttonchops Fassbender can't hide his roguish good looks (apparently he's the Hollywood version of not-handsome). But with her austere yet sweet braided bun Wasikowska does plain-yet-handsome Jane quite well. And together, their playful repartee and passionate poetic flirting (eloquently lifted from Bronte's pages) turns up the heat. As Rochester pulls Jane close enough for a kiss and asks "aren't we friends" when it seems they've just met, their romance blooms in a bit of a rush. But it works in the Gothic context of extremes—both euphoric and horrifying. Like the horror of the deadly secret that haunts Thornfield and their amour.

Fassbender and Wasikowska breathe life into their breathless passion, Bronte's exquisite dialogue and her character's socially enslaved soul searching for freedom. Judi Dench is dependably amusing as the gossipy yet kindhearted housekeeper who prefers Jane's high-born company because she doesn't feel she can speak to other servants like equals. Fukunaga and his cinematographer Adriano Goldman and artistic crew breathe supernatural life into everything else--from the terrifyingly sudden and eerie flutter of a bird or billow of chimney smoke, to a dream of Rochester suspended in a doorway of night and silently falling snow. Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is profoundly stirring -- everything a Jane Eyre movie should be, and more.

Grade: A-