The sad fact is, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre just doesn’t make for appealing cinema. The basic elements might sound like the stuff of sparky movie magic: a crumbling, windswept manor; an unsettling secret, two tragic pasts, and a forbidden love between a clever woman and a tempestuous, brooding man. But given that the woman is plain, the man is ugly, the love is largely forbidden because they come from slightly dissimilar social classes, and the actual romance is an unlikely, abrupt template for “first they hate each other, then they love each other” stories, Jane Eyre always seems to suffer in translation, usually from filmmakers who “improve” on the formula by making everything and everyone prettier, smoother, and more generic.
Cary Fukunaga’s capable but largely passion-free new adaptation doesn’t buck the tide. Alice In Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska dresses down for the title role and almost manages to pull off “plain,” but comes across as too timid and introverted to catch the eye of the fiery Rochester, whom Michael Fassbender plays as peevish at worst. Even the creepy, demanding St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) is only a minor obstacle in this adaptation: The pressure he puts on Jane to enter into a loveless marriage with him and head out on a fatal missionary journey amounts to a single weak pitch that she has little trouble shrugging off. This is a quiet, contemplative Jane Eyre, a childproofed one with all the pointed edges sanded off. It’s respectful of the source material, but apparently too much of a stately costume drama to have energy, drive, or a sense of danger.
Like nearly all versions of Jane Eyre, this one has its high points: vivid scenery, particularly in Jane’s opening-sequence flight across the moors; a suitably infuriating performance from Sally Hawkins as Jane’s vicious guardian, Mrs. Reed; the always-formidable Judi Dench as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax; and a strong sense of the wearying injustice of Jane’s childhood and school days. But Wasikowska doesn’t seem much changed from her Alice role, and she trips through Jane’s adulthood as though it were a fantasia instead of a moody suspense story. And for its part, the film doesn’t contradict her with depth or solidity. It’s an acceptable enough version for those who think “literary classic” means “respectable and dull,” but there isn’t much left when you take the romanticism and the gothic darkness out of gothic romance.