by Colette Bancroft
Charlotte Bronte's 1847 classic Jane Eyre is a paradox: arguably the first feminist novel and certainly one of the progenitors of the bodice-ripping romance.
There have been dozens of versions of Jane Eyre for screens large and small, starting in 1910. The latest, directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), gets many things right.
Although it reorganizes the plot and compresses the book's early chapters, its Jane, sensitively played by Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland), has the independence and intelligence that are at the core of the novel's character. Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) is dashing as Jane's employer and great love, Edward Rochester, his performance a fine balance of physical power and protean intellect.
The film boasts a carriageful of British character actors in supporting roles, including Judi Dench as Rochester's kind housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax and Sally Hawkins as Jane's detestable Aunt Reed. And it nicely rings every bell of historical romance, from sumptuous costumes to settings in elegant estates and on the gray Derbyshire moors.
Moira Buffini's screenplay captures the quality of the novel's dialogue. But the movie can't capture — no movie can — the novel's first-person narrative. At least half the joy of reading Jane Eyre is her self-possessed, witty, ardent voice.
The film's other big flaw is, perhaps, simply a function of its being a movie: Jane and Rochester are way too good-looking. The youthful Fassbender looks like he stalked off a Harlequin cover. Not that I'm complaining, but in Bronte's original, the master of Thornfield is much older than Jane and as prickly and rough-looking as the name of his estate suggests, and his outer ugliness is a reflection of the tortured state of his soul.
As for Jane, she is, well, the original Plain Jane. The film tries to dowdy down Wasikowska by dying her hair brown, but with her ballerina's carriage, rosebud lips and lovely eyes, she just doesn't look like the girl one of her aunt's servants describes as a "little toad."
In Bronte's book, Jane's plainness is part of her essence. Then as now, beauty was essential currency for women, and Jane never has that bargaining chip. She makes her difficult way in the world on brains and character, and that's why, more than a century and a half after Bronte imagined her, readers love her still.
When Fassbender's toothsome Rochester says to Wasikowska's ethereally beautiful Jane, "I know you're not pretty, any more than I am handsome," it sounds like a flirty joke. In Bronte's book, it was one soul speaking to another.