Jane Eyre, Cary Joji Fukunaga, 120 mins (PG)
Friends with Benefits, Will Gluck, 109 mins (15)

Spoiler alert! Viewer, she marries him. But before then, life is bleak. A new telling of Brontë's classic is so chilly you’d better wrap up

About an hour into Jane Eyre, a horse-drawn carriage delivers some bonneted and top-hatted toffs to a country house, but that's the only glimmer on offer of the lavish cosiness of a typical British costume drama.

For the rest of the film, the outdoor scenes are all bare trees and grey skies, and the indoor scenes are pretty grey, too, as the characters creep around their sparsely furnished rooms with only a candle to light their way. It's so harsh and chilly that you'd be advised to take an extra jumper.

The story isn't comfortingly familiar, either. The screenwriter, Moira Buffini, has thrown away pages and pages of Charlotte Brontë's dialogue, leaving only the component parts of the plot, which she's rearranged into an elegant flashback structure. When we first see Jane (Mia Wasikowska), she's fleeing across the moors – wearing grey, naturally – and collapsing at the door of a village parson (Jamie Bell, convincing apart from his stick-on mutton chops). She then remembers her childhood with her spiteful aunt (Sally Hawkins) and sadistic teacher (Simon McBurney) before we come to the heart of the film, her stint as a governess in a stately home. It's a draughty place where things go bump in the night, but it provides Jane with the friendship of the housekeeper (Judi Dench), and the ambiguous attention of her moody employer, Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender).

In the book, all of this is narrated by Jane, so we always know what she's thinking, but in the film Wasikowska, who's best known as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, has to convey everything she wants with a few slight frowns and downward glances. It's a captivating performance. Wasikowska isn't quite as "small and plain" as Jane is supposed to be, but she submerges herself into the character without any attempt to be ingratiating or glamorous, and she holds in her emotions so tightly that before long you're willing her to crack a smile. When she eventually does, you can't help smiling along with her.

The film as a whole is just as uncompromising. Its director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, keeps the atmosphere subdued enough to ensure that what could be a lurid melodrama is always dignified, and ultimately more powerful than most period romances, for all their wet shirts and festive weddings. But it could probably have done with just a flicker more fire. Jane is so reserved that she could be accused of standing back and watching her life from a distance. And when a nocturnal attack by a mysterious cannibal flits by with almost no comment, you might wonder if Fukunaga is being too subtle for his own good.

If Jane Eyre is an anti-costume drama, Friends with Benefits would like to see itself as an anti-romantic comedy. Its hero and heroine, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, are always joking about how mendacious Hollywood romantic comedies are, but the film's claims to be a radical alternative might hold more water if there hadn't already been two rom-coms this year with an identical premise. Like Love & Other Drugs and No Strings Attached, it's about two young, single people who decide to have a sex-only relationship.

Its frankness about sex makes it earthier than most rom-coms, but in other respects Friends with Benefits is as contrived as anything that Kate Hudson has subjected us to: the song-packed soundtrack, the idealised New York setting, the gay confidant and the eccentric relatives are all present and correct, but this time they come larded with aren't-we-cool smugness. Ah, well, there's time for Hollywood to pump out a fourth film on the same subject before the end of the year.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber sees Jesse Eisenberg reuniting with the makers of Zombieland for the grammatically unsound 30 Minutes or Less

Film Choice

Suburban psycho-drama turns into hitman thriller, then into something stranger still in Ben Wheatley's Kill List, an inspired departure from Brit cinema's well-beaten track. Still further on the wild side, Greek film Attenberg – about the birds, the bees and Monty Python silly walks – is a bizarre offering from the team that brought us Dogtooth.

Also Showing: 11/09/2011

Troll Hunter (103 mins, 15)

This hit Norwegian monster movie is a cross between Cloverfield and This Is Spinal Tap. Three student film-makers meet an outdoorsman who belongs to a little-known government department. When he's not filling in forms and grumbling about his lack of overtime pay, he's turning tree-sized trolls into stone. Tremendous fun.

A Lonely Place to Die (98 mins, 15)

Melissa George stars as a mountaineer who's hunted by a pair of remarkably sloppy and trigger-happy kidnappers in the Scottish Highlands. The tumultuous finale, set during a Wicker Man-ish pagan procession, should serve as the director's Hollywood calling card.

Colombiana (110 mins, 15)

Luc Besson's latest grubby thriller stars Zoe Saldana as a mass murderer. We're supposed to sympathise with her because she likes to slink around in her underwear when she's not gunning down defenceless victims.

Kes (110 mins, PG)

To celebrate the 75th birthday of "Kenneth Loach", as the opening credits call him, his 1969 classic gets a welcome reissue.

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