The handsome new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre is another example of how good modern filmmaking can oil the rusty joints of creaky old storytelling. It's not that writers today don't concoct plots that strain to achieve an end. It's just that a sesqui-century ago, when fewer plots were taken, you sort of like to think that writers didn't have to.
But Brontë did, and in directing Jane Eyre, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who is 33 and an American, keeps things strongly focused on the sensation of it all. If Jane and her Victorian-era kin aren't fully human, then at least they're fully dramatic, and the actors play it all so close to the heart and bone that you can taste the blood and marrow.
The novel, told in first person, presents itself as autobiography, and so does the movie, in a way: There's no voiceover, but the story unfolds through Jane's point of view, which means that Mia Wasikowska, as the adult Jane, appears in almost every scene.
The movie begins as a flashback, with a wet and weepy Jane collapsing on the doorstep of the Rev. St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), who restores her to health. She won't talk of her past, which the drama then begins to unfold: orphaned as a child, raised by an abusive aunt, sent off to a school ruled by abusive men and women of God. Then she is placed on the estate of the wealthy Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbinder), who has taken as his ward a little French girl, who needs a teacher.
You can certainly guess the rest, except perhaps for another mysterious member of the household, whose presence is unknown even to Rochester's trusted housekeeper (Judi Dench).
Jane, of course, is one of literature's great ur-feminists, and she's determined to speak and live the truth of her soulful inner self. "I wish a woman could have action in her life like a man," she says. "I will save my gifts until they're wanted. They will keep." The real Jane Eyres of the world had a long wait. So maybe it's time for a story about the Brontë sisters, who wrote famous novels about women's inner lives, and who unwittingly gave us entertaining movies to fritter away our days, as did the denizens of the country mansions in their books.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell
Starts Fri., April. 8. AMC Loews, Manor