Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Jane Eyre Anew

To be a more-or-less orphan of ambiguous class and no apparent means was a tough card to draw in Nineteenth Century England. However, pluck and providence will provide much to a virtuous governess. Her name of course, is Jane Eyre. Following many previous screen adaptations of vary quality, director Cary Joji Fukunaga is quite faithful to the Charlotte Brontë source novel throughout his brisk new version of Jane Eyre (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In a bit of a departure, Moira Buffini’s screenplay tells much of Eyre’s story in flashback, explaining the circumstances that led the bedraggled young woman to seek sanctuary with the Reverend St. John Rivers and his sisters. The particulars of her story remain the same. After the untimely death her parents, she is sent to live with her with her emotionally cruel aunt, Sarah Reed. Educated at the austere Lowood School, Eyre eventually accepts a position as the governess to the young French ward of Thornfield Hall’s moody master.

Usually described as “Byronic,” Edward Rochester has a fearsome reputation. Much to his surprise though, the difficult Mr. Rochester genuinely respects his deceptively mousy new governess. Indeed, sparks start to fly. Of course, as we all (should) know, there are revelations in store for Eyre that will send her flying from the estate.

Unlike other notable film takes, Fukunaga seems to deliberately downplay the gothic aspects of the story. Frankly, his Thornfield looks almost cozy (but earns kudos for art director Karl Probert and set decorator Tina Jones). While not necessarily right or wrong, it gives the film a romantic character distinct from that of the dank looking classic 1944 version starring Orson Welles.

Funneling Brontë’s hefty novel into a running time of just under two hours, Fukunaga largely sacrifices a few of the supporting characters. Do not blink when Imogen Poots appears as Blanche Ingram, because she will not be around for long. Yet, he covers all the important bases and wisely invests the proper time to establish the budding attraction between Eyre and Rochester.

Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are perfectly cast as the unlikely couple. They truly look the parts and develop electric screen chemistry together. Though Fassbender might be a tad younger than traditional for Rochester, he is one of the few actors working today who has adequate presence and the right malevolent charisma for the role. While never really challenged in her supporting turn, Dame Judi Dench still adds a touch of class to the proceedings as the mostly sympathetic housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax.

Capitalizing on the strength of its two leads, Fukunaga’s Eyre plays like Brontë for Jane Austen readers. The results are thoroughly engaging. Artfully crafted and well paced, is one of the better English literary period dramas to hit screens in a number of years. A solidly entertaining Eyre, it opens this Friday (3/11) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Square Cinemas.