Towards the end of 2010, the keys to the costume department were handed to two unlikely recipients: Andrea Arnold, moving from the generally contained urban dramas of debut Fish Tank towards her lush, fresh-air version of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and Cary Joji Fukunaga, who broke through with Sin Nombre, his rough-edged study of Latino migrants, and chose for his next project an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights, which we might well label a sister film, sought out the experiential; picking up where Fukunaga's previous film left off, Jane Eyre has some of this, too, most obviously in the grand, David Lean-ish sweep of an opening clinging to the tails of Jane (Mia Wasikowska)'s dress as she sobs her way over the rain-lashed moors, fleeing we know not what yet.
Mostly, though, Fukunaga and the screenwriter Moira Buffini have taken a step back to view the book through a psychological, even political prism. This Jane is drilled into passivity, schooled from a very early age to expect nothing other than disappointment and hardship from life. Flashbacks give us the crucial formative moments: being cast out by a callous aunt (Sally Hawkins) and made subject to a punishing religious education, where she's forced to watch her best friend die from institutional negligence in front of her very eyes. In this light, it's all too obvious why Jane might fall under the spell of that dashing brute Rochester (Michael Fassbender: of-the-moment, on-the-money casting, particularly after his role in Fish Tank). He, at least, provides a form of protection - a roof over our heroine's head - and takes the trouble to conceal his cruelties, rather than flaunt them publicly.
For obvious reasons, the film is preoccupied with attic space: it's thought about what's going through these characters' minds, for at least as long as it's wondered what to dress them in, and can be commended as such. Fukunaga makes fuller use of the progressiveness Wasikowska hinted at in Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right, the camera forever finding her Jane gazing out over her limited horizon and yearning, clinging to the belief she must be destined for something more than empty servitude; the filmmaker gets her motivation, because it's exactly that of the migrants heading north to the New World in his breakthrough feature. Elsewhere, however, he does rather fall prey to that strain of costume-movie nonsense that schools female viewers to swoon over grumpy bastards with sideburns who are only attractive because they're played by Colin Firth or Michael Fassbender. (It remains a source of eternal regret that we never got to see Les Dawson's Rochester.)
Fassbender, to his credit, gives us a funny, mercurial grump, skilfully varying his annoyance with all the women he's attracted in his time, but Buffini makes life somewhat easy for any sceptics in the audience by preserving Rochester's evaluation of his governess - "you are not pretty, any more than I am handsome" - a line which no-one as handsome as Fassbender should have to speak to anyone as pretty as Wasikowska. This may equally be a problem present in the source, but Jane Eyre also proves irksome in its conception of the male characters as either hateful and supernaturally sexy, or virtuous yet dull: we can see where Bridget Jones got it from, I guess, but it seems a tad unfair the material should seek to snuff out Jamie Bell's usual spark as Mr. Rivers. (God knows, there are naturally duller actors out there.)
Still, I guess there's an audience to satisfy. No matter how unexpected the choice of director, this Jane Eyre remains broadly traditionalist - particularly when set against the unruly younger sister of Arnold's film - and more or less what you'd expect from a prestige costume drama bearing the BBC Films logo: it's gorgeously tailored (we'll overlook the one country-bumpkin ensemble that momentarily turns Michael Fassbender into the spitting image of Windy Miller), lavishly scored, properly Denched out. Fukunaga does well by the big moments - Rochester's first appearance astride a black stallion, the "surprise" reveal - and generally conspires with DoP Adriano Goldman to cloak events in a seductive air composed of equal parts twilight, candlefire and fog. But convention takes over, and the film becomes less cheeringly subversive the longer it goes on. In the end, Jane goes back to Rochester, only to find his ultra des res has burned down to the ground: some men, we learn, are simply too hot for their own good. Given the earlier efforts to depict Jane's growing independence, the film's notionally happy ending plays as a total bust: this is the Jane Eyre Rihanna and Chris Brown might choose to rent.
Jane Eyre is currently available on DVD, and on demand via Film Flex and Sky Box Office.