The tension is palpable from the start of this visceral adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s gothic romance. A door is opened, Searchers style, by the eponymous young woman (Wasikowska), who runs hurriedly onto the foggy moors. The character then wanders through various dwarfing landscapes – there’s a particularly striking overhead shot when she stands at a literal crossroads – until arriving at the door of clergyman St John Rivers (Bell). Brontëheads (the original Twihards?) know that these scenes occur about three quarters of the way through the novel. Screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Cary Fukunaga’s inspired approach is to frame everything that came before – Jane’s tortuous upbringing and her eventful employment as a governess – as a series of increasingly lengthy flashbacks that slowly catch up to the present.
These bouts of remembrance are typically entered and exited as if they were inescapable nightmares. The past truly haunts Jane: She thinks back on her cruel aunt, Mrs Reed (Sally Hawkins), and the strict boarding school where her quietly defiant nature was shaped. But she obsesses most on her relationship with Edward Rochester (Fassbender), the mysterious proprietor of the seemingly haunted Thornfield Hall. It’s in this sinister location – where every shadow appears to mask some horrifying threat – that the majority of the tale takes place.
Fukunaga, who made a promising debut with 2009’s Sin Nombre, orchestrates some alternately disturbing and dreamy encounters: the famous bed-on-fire sequence sizzles even after Jane has doused the flames. And Wasikowska and Fassbender are perfectly paired, though the streamlining of the story occasionally gives the proceedings a CliffsNotes-illustrated feel (the revelation of Rochester’s past doesn’t pack quite the punch it should). Still, the film builds to a shattering climax that works precisely because all involved fully embrace the melodrama. Be sure to bring tissues. Keith Uhlich