Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
(2011, PG-13, 120 min)

Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s film is my first exposure to the story of Jane Eyre, and like many other female characters from the period I’ve seen and read, its protagonist is a strong-willed woman of intelligence and dignity; knowing such characters existed in famous fiction of the 19th century, one can’t help but feel embarrassed for an era that churns out Katherine Heigl movies at regular intervals.

The terrific young actress Mia Wasikowska plays Jane, who as a child was scorned and abused by her guardian, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), and then shipped off to a scornful and abusive boarding school where the primary lesson seemed to be that God punishes bad little girls, and if God was slow on the uptake, the administrators were happy to punish in His stead. Surviving the ordeal with her head held high, she leaves the school as an adult and takes a job as a governess for the eight-year-old ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), a rich man, coldly domineering, mysterious, and harboring secrets.

If there’s one problem with the film it’s that the romance between Jane and Rochester feels abrupt, because at first Jane seems too self-possessed and Rochester too predatory for a mutual attraction to develop. As she wanders through the corridors of the aptly named Thornfield Hall, dodging his sinister glares, romance seems to be the last thing on her mind, though, in all fairness, even a creepy Michael Fassbender is more desirable than most men.

That’s a relatively minor concern in the context of the entire film, which works extremely well thanks in large part to the direction of Fukunaga. His last film was Sin Nombre, a drama about the journey of illegal immigrants to America, and while an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte is a sharp left turn in subject matter, he seems more at home in the material, emphasizing its Gothic mystery with superb cinematography by Adriano Goldman that uses the soft, golden textures of candlelight to generate intrigue, dread, and sensuality inside the manse, and in exterior scenes evokes the foggy, forlorn moors and the warm, hopeful countryside. At times it plays almost like a haunted house thriller, which is how it must feel for Jane: nothing but unfamiliar faces and places, new uncertain feelings, and voices behind the walls.