Jane Eyre: Mamma Mia, a Star Is Born!

This remake of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre hits the jackpot with Mia Wasikowska

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Laurie Sparham / Universal Studios

The small figure of Jane Eyre stumbles across Yorkshire moors, desperately trying to outrun her fate, as the pelting rain underlines Nature’s hostility to humans. At night, in ominous old Thornfield Hall, the shutters clatter threateningly, and a soughing wind slips through the cracks like a ghost’s vengeful moaning. Rochester, the lord of the house, could be a demon born of these untamed elements — “most phantomlike of all,” Jane calls him — and when he begs the girl to leave with him he warns, like another spectral Count, “We must leave before daylight.”

The new version of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has all the trappings of genre pictures from Hollywood’s antiquity. To the conventions of Gothic romance that Charlotte and her sister Emily helped invent (both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were published in 1847), director Cary Joji Fukunaga adds the atmospheric effects of old-dark-house melodramas, ghost stories and vampire movies. In the scenes of young Jane’s years at Lowood School for wayward girls, Fukunaga imports some clichés from women-in-prison pictures: the wicked warden, the sullen inmates and a modest version of the strip search. At times this Jane Eyre wants to be its own fright-night film festival.

(See TIME’s top 100 novels.)

Playwright Moira Buffini’s script uses a flashback structure familiar from film noir. The movie begins on the moors, as Jane (Mia Wasikowska) runs away from Thornfield and finds refuge with the young pastor St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell). She then recalls her early years (the 10-year-old Jane is played by Amelia Clarkson) as the unloved ward of her aunt, Mrs. Read (Sally Hawkins), and the victim of institutional sadism at Lowood, where she discovers one friend in the consumptive, beatific Helen Burns (Freya Parks). At 18, Jane secures employment as a governess at Thornfield under the caring housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and finally meets the morbid Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), who is tortured by a ghost he can’t evict from his home or his roiling mind. Rich boy meets poor girl; the sinner believes he’s found his savior.

Beneath the genre frills and thrills, a schoolgirl’s heart must beat, to record the seismic union of “poor, obscure, plain and little” Jane (her own severe description) and the baronial, Byronic Rochester. Any Jane Eyre movie that hopes to work must find two actors who strike sparks not just with each other but within the people they play. The 1944 Hollywood adaptation, directed by Robert Stevenson, had Joan Fontaine as a more glamorous Jane and Orson Welles a magnificently glowering Rochester. (The film was also graced with three all-time beguilers in the children’s roles: Peggy Ann Garner as Jane, Margaret O’Brien as Adele and Elizabeth Taylor as Helen.) Later versions of the story starred Susannah York and George C. Scott, Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, and Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds.

This remake hits the jackpot with Wasikowska (pronounced VashiKOVska) and, not far behind, Fassbender. In Hunger, Fish Tank and Inglourious Basterds German-Irish actor played widely different characters unified only by the commitment he invested in them. As Rochester he’s just as ferocious, practically feral, within brooding distance of Daniel Day-Lewis but sporting the matinee-idol looks and smolder of the young Christopher Plummer. His conversations with Jane — the film’s most potent scenes — register as both the couple’s courtship and Rochester’s therapy. The man needs healing, and will come to Jane for it, even if it ruins them both.

Wasikowska, the young Australian who made a powerful impression as the suicidal teen gymnast in season one of HBO’s In Treatment, also played one of the children in The Kids Are All Right. More pertinently, she was Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, where she responded to each surreal eminence with a surprising lack of surprise. Her Jane must face horrors, not wonders, but Wasikowska’s face is again a blank slate on which we can write a rich history of the young women she plays. Playing the role with almost no makeup, to concentrate the viewer’s attention on her watchfulness, she is less the sum of what she looks like than the way she looks at the world; she is Jane Eye.

(See Corliss’ review of Alice in Wonderland.)

Off-screen, Wasikowska appears to be a typical 21-year-old, halfway between duckling and swan; smiling and wearing a blond pixie cut, she could pass for Michelle Williams’s kid sister or Gwyneth Paltrow’s niece. But when in character, she becomes a mirror into a rich interior world. Her Jane betrays neither glumness nor self-pity; she is versed in the world’s woes but does not rail against them, for she knows they made her strong; she observes even Rochester, whom she secretly loves, with the poised intelligence of an extraterrestrial visitor. Edward Zwick, who directed Wasikowska in the World War II drama Defiance, says, “Her inner life is so vivid that it comes across even when she’s being still.”

This illuminating stillness is a gift shared by few English-speaking actresses. Her mentor might be Isabelle Huppert, a French star for 35 years, and high mistress of revealing a soul without making faces. Hollywood will do itself a favor if it meets this astral performer on her own terms; if it writes new stories on her blank-slate face; if it finds the strength and mystery in Wasikowska that Rochester did in Jane.