Ok, I get that you’re probably up to here with Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel about the young governess and her brooding, Byronic master has been shoved down our throats since high school. Then there’s the 18 feature films that have been carved out of the book, plus nine TV-movie versions. Is anything fresh even possible? Hang on, haters. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) have deftly brought out Brontë’s gothic terrors. And they’ve wisely cast it young.
The splendid Aussie actress Mia Wasikowska, 21, is best known for playing the lead in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. And she brings innocence and carnal curiosity to the role of Jane, a teen orphan who doesn’t know what to expect when she comes to scary-gloomy Thornfield Hall to care for the young ward of Mr. Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Even the presence of friendly housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (the excellent Judi Dench) can’t hide the fact that secrets are a living, sometimes howling, screaming presence at Thornfield.
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Jane’s first sight of Rochester, his horse heaving up with phallic ferocity, is hardly one of those bonnet-movie meet-cutes. Jane is stirred to her core. Fassbender, 33, the superb Irish actor who excelled in Hunger, Fish Tank and Inglourious Basterds, inhabits the glowering Rochester with erotic intensity and leavening wit, never letting the tight breeches and puffy shirts do his acting for him. Wasikowska and Fassbender make a pair of ravishing romantics, giving the movie unexpected sizzle. Repressed sexuality will do it every time. Purists will object to abridgments of the book. But Fukunaga, son of a Japanese father and a Swedish mother, is a filmmaker to watch. He has reanimated a classic for a new generation, letting Jane Eyre resonate with terror and tenderness.