I have heard people complaining that we've had too many versions of Jane Eyre on screen and TV. Does this mean that they've seen them all and that our Eyre supply is now full? I prefer to think of it as the gift that keeps on giving: you can enjoy the 1944 Hollywood version, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, without any danger of mistaking it for "definitive". There's richness and complexity enough in Charlotte Brontë's novel to attract film-makers and filmgoers for another 100 years. Some works of art are inexhaustible, and this is proving one of them.
This latest version brings no dramatic new angle or ideological emphasis to the story, just precision of design, nuance of mood, and excellent casting. And weather – lots of bleak, damp, frozen-to-the-bone weather. We get a dose of it straightaway as the camera trails a young woman fleeing across moorland under skies the colour of slate, through blinding curtains of rain. This would be Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska), reduced to utter wretchedness as she slumps, exhausted, at the door of a stranger. The director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and screenwriter Moira Buffini have neatly restructured the story so as to begin with their heroine's lowest ebb before flashing back to her girlhood.
And what a famous girlhood it is, orphaned, bullied and beaten, "solitary and despised", first by the wicked aunt (Sally Hawkins) who ought to have taken care of her; then at a school that could rival anything in Dickens (Brontë's contemporary) for meanness, personified in Simon McBurney's wonderfully unpleasant pedagogue. There is almost too much opportunity for pathos here; a film could drown in it. This one resists its siren lure, trusting in Amelia Clarkson's brief but gracious performance as the 10-year-old Jane and the swift demise of poor Helen Burns, her only friend in the school. It suggests just enough of the horror Jane has endured to make us marvel not just at her fortitude but her absence of bitterness at her fate. And when she is later teased by her employer – "All governesses have a tale of woe," he says, dryly – her unselfpitying response actually carries a note of the heroic. Of her aunt she merely says, "I was burdensome, and she disliked me."
Jane's time at Thornfield Hall, as governess to the young ward of the house's master, has been the most tranquil of her life. Too tranquil. The staid but kindly housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax (Judi Dench), understands how limited are the horizons for a young woman, but what is to be done? "I wish a woman could have action in her life – like a man," reflects Jane, little suspecting the hurricane in human form just around the plot's next bend. Her first encounter out in the open with Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is as unpromising as a tormented romance should be; the second, back at Thornfield, only confirms his unfortunate mix of condescension, brusqueness and irritability. What draws him to Jane is the mysterious calm of her disposition and her refusal to be cowed in his company. And, beneath his haughty manners, she gradually uncovers a noble and surprisingly ardent spirit.
To make this work without the benefit of Jane's voice requires some very confident casting. Mia Wasikowska, rather lost as Alice in Tim Burton's over-busy Wonderland, found her feet as the inquisitive daughter of last year's The Kids Are All Right. Here she looks almost too austere, her reddish hair scraped back to reveal a face poised exactly on the cusp between plainness and beauty. But we come to like her level, unflinching stare, and her soft but steady voice. Wasikowska uses her watchfulness to great effect in the long, fencing dialogues between Jane and Rochester, keeping him at arm's length even as he inches his way towards her heart. (Her Yorkshire accent is used sparingly but effectively). Fassbender, with his saturnine gaze and athletic leanness, makes a fine Rochester, tracing a curve from the restless and faintly charmless overlord to a vulnerable man battling between duty and passion.
The film creates a fantastically atmospheric setting in which that passion is played out, notably through cinematographer Adriano Goldman's expressive palette of duns, greens and greys (lots of greys). Within, the rooms and passageways of Thornfield are spookily lit by candleflame, possibly referencing the chiaroscuro paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. Of course, we know why those floorboards creak and things go bump in the night; it's the shameful secret blighting Rochester's existence, the wife whom his soul recoiled at but his conscience could not abandon. The bed and the curtains set on fire have never looked as symbolic as they do here. One wonders, all the same, at the perfunctory use made of the first Mrs Rochester, the madwoman – in her very brief screentime she looks awfully well groomed. Was it an attic they locked her in, or a spa?
In supporting roles Judi Dench is tremendous as the housekeeper, oddly feline in her backhanded compliments ("I've long noticed you're a pet of his," she says to Jane of Rochester), and Jamie Bell is good value as the clergyman, St John, whose kindness hides a priggish will to control. His cold piety is the counterpoint to Rochester's wild romanticism, the forces that would tame the quiet but redoubtable independence at Jane's core. The anguish of her struggle in resisting them is part of the book's lasting appeal, necessarily truncated here but still movingly glimpsed in the banked fires of Mia Wasikowska's performance.