I'm generally opposed to using "Masterpiece Theater" as a way to characterize a fusty movie derived from the classics. For one thing, most "Masterpiece Theater" productions are a lot better than most movies. Still, the pejorative is not always misplaced. "Jane Eyre," the latest cinematic adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's novel, is like "Masterpiece Theater" without the masterpiece.
It lacks what it most needs – passion. Without it, this "Jane Eyre" is a lot closer to a middling horror film than a brooding piece of deep-dish romanticism. I remain far fonder of the 1944 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, hammy as it is. (Less memorable was the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli film. I did not see the 1983 miniseries, which at the very least must have crammed a lot more of the novel onto the screen.)
For this latest incarnation, the screenwriter Moira Buffini and her director, Cary Fukunaga, have framed the Brontë novel utilizing a framing device featuring a grown-up Jane (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing in fear across the English moors. She is taken in by a kindly missionary (Jamie Bell) and his two sisters and proceeds to methodically recreate for herself a makeshift family to replace the harrowing one she left behind.
In flashbacks that seem more Dickensian than Brontëan, we see Jane's punishing childhood years overseen by a cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins) and brutal headmaster (Simon McBurney). When she is made governess at Thornfield Hall, which resembles Dracula's castle, Jane falls under the spell of the mysterious Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), the lord of the manor, for whom the word "sullen" is inadequate. Rochester is not the kind of guy you invite over to liven up the party.
Brooding can, of course, be romantic, even sexy. It can also, as here, be blah. I don't think this is Fassbender's fault, exactly. He is an actor who can be dynamic even in repose. In "Hunger," he played an IRA prisoner on a hunger strike and it was one of the most physical performances I've ever seen. My guess is that Fukunaga straitened Fassbender's energies to fit the narrow confines of Gothic melodrama. Perhaps he feared that a more exuberant performance might seem too contemporaneous. Or something.
At the opposite extreme is Wasikowska's Jane, who is as tamped down as Rochester is morose. She's still the best thing in the movie. As she demonstrated last year in films as disparate as "The Kids Are All Right" and "Alice in Wonderland," Wasikowska is a marvelously intuitive actress, and she does manage to convey Jane's fierce spiritedness. (Jane falls just short of being an official feminist precursor, which is probably all for the best. Not everything from the past needs to be brought into the present.)
I wish the filmmakers had trusted us to feel our way through the story rather than trying to wow us with a high-strung score and unhinged camera flourishes across darkling landscapes. When I wrote earlier that this "Jane Eyre" lacked passion, I should have qualified that statement. It has passion all right – in the stylistics. Those star-crossed love birds Jane and Rochester are no match for the tracking shots and throbbing violins. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content.)