Classics of English literature almost never make great movies, and Charlotte Brontë’s gothic romance Jane Eyre, which has been filmed more than a dozen times since 1914, is no exception. You can see why filmmakers are drawn to the story, which seems to have loads of cinematic elements: strong but vulnerable heroine, tortured Byronic hero, locales ranging from a posh estate to the wild moors, mysterious noises from a locked room, acts of crazed violence, etc. But like most novels worth reading, Jane Eyre derives most of its power from its author’s prose style and its characters’ rich interior monologues, neither of which translates well to the silver screen. What you wind up with in their place is a lot of tempestuous brooding that rings vaguely hollow.
This latest version, directed by relative newcomer Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), can be best described as serviceable—a solid two-hour study guide for high school students who can’t be bothered to read the book. Mostly, it provides a showcase for two exciting new actors. Mia Wasikowska, who also played the title role in last year’s Alice in Wonderland, makes for an unusually tremulous Jane, while Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds), though far too handsome for the role as written, nonetheless conveys Rochester’s off-putting quality through offbeat line readings that somehow suggest the physical ugliness he so conspicuously lacks. The two play beautifully off each other, but they still can’t quite fill the holes left by Brontë.